The Wall Street Journal law blog has a piece up on how the budget crisis is impacting public defenders:
Funding constraints have prompted states and counties to lay off public defenders, hold the line on salaries, and reduce the amount defenders can spend case investigators and staff training, the WSJ reports.
Public defenders maintain that they should be insulated from budget cuts for two reasons, the first being that they were sorely underfunded before the recession came along. Secondly, they point to the fact that states have a duty, enshrined in Gideon v. Wainwright, to provide indigent criminal defendants with the right to counsel.
Stephen J. Schulhofer and David Friedman recently published a Cato Policy Analysis, Reforming Indigent Defense that proposes a free market solution: use vouchers instead of public defenders. This would eliminate the overhead of keeping defense attorneys on the public payroll and improve the quality of representation. As they put it in a related op-ed:
Vouchers would greatly improve the quality of defense representation, because attorneys hoping to attract business would have to serve their clients well. Better representation will, in turn, produce at least three benefits for society. First, improving defense services will reduce the potential for mistakes. It will be less likely that innocent persons will be wrongfully convicted and less likely that the actual perpetrators will remain free to repeat their offenses.
Second, improving defense services will minimize adverse consequences even for those who would be acquitted under current systems of indigent defense. A better defense makes it more likely that the innocent will be released from custody sooner, with less disruption to their lives and less expense for the jails that hold them.
Third, improving indigent defense will bring better information to the sentencing process — making it more likely that appropriate, cost-effective punishments will be imposed on those who are guilty.
My colleague Tim Lynch will speaking on Capitol Hill today at a related event, The Last Sacred Cow: How Congress Can Cut Criminal Justice Spending Without Compromising Public Safety.