Health of State Indigent Defense Programs A Hot Discussion Topic in Washington, DC – What’s the Federal Government’s Role?

Earlier this year we covered the appointment of Harvard professor Laurence Tribe as the Senior Counselor for DOJ’s Access to Justice Initiative, which is exploring what role the federal government’s chief criminal justice arm should play in shoring up weakened indigent defense infrastructures on the state level.  In states throughout the country (e.g. New York, Michigan, and Idaho) funding pressures are weighing heavily on public defense programs.  While exacerbated by the recession, many of these funding problems existed on a systemic level long before.

Anyway, this brings us to what’s been happening recently in Washington.  Last week, Reps. John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) and Bobby Scott (D-VA) hosted  an indigent defense summit called “The Constitutional Right to Counsel Summit: A Dialogue on the State Public Defense Crisis & the Federal Response.”  Courtesy of the Constitution Project, the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA) has put up a nice summary of the program. Professor Tribe spoke, as well as defenders and prosecutors from around the country. Several panelists discussed the imbalance in federal funding to prosecutor’s offices and defender’s offices.

Also last week, Prof.  Tribe spoke at the American Constitution Society’s National Convention.  He actually was featured on two panels, one concerning civil legal services on Friday (Main Justice has a summary of that panel), and one on Saturday regarding indigent criminal defense (the Blog of the Legal Times had that summary). During the indigent defense panel, Prof. Tribe mentioned the importance of increasing law firm pro bono efforts. However, it was unclear whether he meant that law firms should make efforts to take more indigent defense cases, or whether he was merely discussing DOJ’s efforts to expand civil access to justice as well (as he had been talking about the day before).

The cost of prosecution and defense was another popular topic at the ACS panel, with Jo-Ann Wallace (president and CEO of NLADA) pointing out that if states provide competent counsel at the beginning of cases, they can avoid higher costs associated with appeals later due to less-than-stellar representation. Erik Luna (professor at Washington and Lee, whose op-ed we blogged about back in March) argued that there is no appropriate role for the federal government in state-level indigent defense (or state-level prosecutions), and that a complete withdrawal of support on all levels could force states to cut down on their prosecutions in order to stay within their new budgetary constraints.

We linked yesterday to the video and audio of many of ACS’s convention panels, but the two discussed here are not yet posted. If they go up, we will link to them as well.

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