Inadequately Funded Public Defender Services Threaten Criminal Justice System, ACLU Testifies

March 26, 2009 12:00 am

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WASHINGTON – American Civil Liberties Union attorney Robin L. Dahlberg testified today before a House subcommittee about the need for congressional and state oversight of inadequately funded and administered indigent defense programs. The hearing held by the Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security of the House Judiciary Committee was entitled, “Representation of Indigent Defendants in Criminal Cases: A Constitutional Crisis in Michigan and Other States?”

“The state of public defense services in this country is in crisis,” said Caroline Fredrickson, Director of the ACLU Washington Legislative Office. “Public defense services have become a popular budget cut for many states in these tough economic times. The impact of these budget cuts is that attorneys for poor criminal defendants often have overwhelming caseloads and grossly inadequate resources. If we are going to have meaningful constitutional protections, Congress must help fix our broken criminal justice system.”

In testimony, Dahlberg, a senior attorney with the ACLU Racial Justice Program, discussed the United States Constitution’s Sixth Amendment guarantee that in all criminal prosecutions the accused shall have “the assistance of counsel for his defense.” The United States Supreme Court has ruled that as part of this constitutional right, states must provide counsel to anyone accused of criminal wrongdoing and unable to afford private counsel.

“The poor are frequently provided with counsel in name only,” said Dahlberg. “The failure of states to adequately fund and administer public defender services infects the entire criminal justice system. This failed system compromises our ability to produce just results. Consequently, the current state of public defense services jeopardizes public confidence, perpetuates racial disparities and endangers public safety, wastes taxpayer dollars and diminishes the United States in the international community.”

Dahlberg highlighted Michigan, which has one of the worst indigent defense systems in the country, as exemplifying the many problems that riddle indigent defense systems across the nation. The state delegates to its 83 counties the responsibility of funding and administrating trial-level public defense services. But Michigan provides no fiscal or administrative oversight and does nothing to ensure that the counties’ funding, policies, programs or guidelines enable their public defenders to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation As a result, it is not unusual for the budgets of prosecuting attorneys offices to be as much as three times greater than those of indigent defense offices.

When public defenders do not have the necessary resources, their clients are wrongfully convicted, plead guilty when they should not, and spend too much time in jail or prison. For example, Michigan resident Allen Fox received a 12-month sentence for trying to steal two cans of corned beef from a convenience store. Fox sat in jail for six months before ever meeting an attorney. In another case in 2002, Eddie Joe Lloyd was released from a Michigan prison after DNA testing confirmed that he was innocent. He spent 17 years behind bars because his trial lawyer did not present a defense. Lloyd’s wrongful conviction cost Michigan taxpayers over $4.5 million.

In fact, between 2003 and 2007, attorneys in the Michigan Appellate Defender Office found sentencing errors in one-third of the guilty plea appeals assigned to their office. When they corrected these mistakes, Michigan taxpayers saved $3,675,000.

To address the crisis in indigent defense, Dahlberg urged Congress to take four steps:

  • Encourage parity between state prosecutorial and indigent defense services that receive funding from the federal Justice Assistance Grant Programs;
  • Require the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics to collect, publish and analyze data on the funding and operation of such programs nationwide as part of an effort to provide needs-based financing for indigent defense programs;
  • Recreate the federal death penalty resource centers to avoid the monopolization of indigent defense resources;
  • and Encourage lawyers to become public defenders by funding the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, which forgives certain types of federal student loans.

Dahlberg’s testimony is available online at:

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