Bill introduced to bring defense budgets more in alignment with prosecutors
A bill was introduced at the national level by presidential hopeful Senator Kamala Harris that addresses the unfair advantage prosecutors have over public defend- ers in criminal cases.
In May, California’s ex-attorney general introduced a bill called The Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense Act (EQUAL Defense Act) to ensure quality access to legal defense. The bill would allocate $250 million in federal aid to encourage pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors and to lower the unmanageable case loads of public defenders.
According to the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, the U.S. Supreme Court established over 50 years ago that, “in our adversary system of criminal justice, any person [haled] into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured of a fair trial unless counsel is provided for [them].” Twenty years after that, the court said that not just any counsel would do, but that counsel must be “effective.”
Kanya Bennett and Ezekiel Edwards, both of the ACLU, cited California’s Fresno Public Defender’s Office as a glaring example of case overload caused by the lack of al- located dollars.
They noted the national mandates set for defense attorneys are for case loads not to exceed 150 felony cases and 400 misdemeanor cases. Currently Fresno public defenders are handling a minimum of 418 felony cases and 1,375 misdemeanor cases per year, according to statistics compiled by the ACLU.
With a 365 day calendar reduced to an estimated 198 working court days in this state, forecasts for each pub- lic defender in Fresno estimate they must close 9.05 cases per 6.5 hour day.
In Orleans Parish, Louisiana, budget shortfalls have forced defenders to put indigent defendants on waiting lists for representation.
Bennett and Edwards reported the constitutional crisis revealed in Fresno and Orleans Parish can be seen across the country because of inadequate funds budgeted for defending indigent individuals.
Currently the nation is spending approximately $200 billion on criminal justice yet only allocates $5 billion, or 2.5%, to defending the accused.
Sen. Harris’ proposed bill would only increase the defense budget by .125 percent of the total judiciary budget.
One program that addressed violations of the “right to counsel” guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment was the Dept. of Justice’s creation of the Access to Justice Office in 2010. The office’s mission statement included the goal to “help the justice system efficiently deliver outcomes that are fair and accessible to all, irrespective of wealth and status.”
That program was funded through 2021, but the Access to Justice Office was summarily closed by the current Trump Administration, ac- cording to the ACLU.
The ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project reached this conclusion about “The urgent need to insure robust public defense systems… America warehouses over two million people behind bars. If low-income people caught in the carceral system do not have zealous advocates, they will continue to be over criminalized, over incarcerated, and deprived of their rights, without functioning public defender systems, we cannot meaningfully reduce the staggering number of people held in pretrial detention, wrongful convictions, or abusive prosecutorial practices.”
Yet to fiscally adept Americans, it’s obvious that even if Senator Harris’ Equal Defense Act passes, an increase of .00125 per- cent will not be enough to stave off most wrongful prosecutions.