June 26, 2008

Indigent defendants face loss of attorneys

"Starve the Beast" decimating public services

Crumbling schools, shuttered hospitals, unemployment, homeless elderly, the demise of medical and mental health services. It is hard for me to grasp that the catastrophic collapse of America's infrastructure is part of a deliberate, 25-year strategy.

But there is not much doubt that the current crisis is the result of the "Starve the Beast" doctrine of slashing government services through tax cuts, especially for the corporations and the rich. Taxes in the United States are far lower than in almost any other advanced country, while war costs skyrocket.

In the criminal justice system, budget cuts are making a mockery out of the Constitutional right to legal representation. With plea-bargains the norm, trials are becoming an endangered species. In one rural Mississippi county, more than 4 out of 10 indigent defendants plead guilty at arraignment, on the day that they first meet their court-appointed contract lawyers.

The public defenders I work with are staggering under crippling caseloads. Around the country, budget cuts are forcing layoffs of trial lawyers. In some counties, public defense agencies are responding by refusing to handle misdemeanors and even, in some cases, serious felonies.
  • In Florida, the Miami-Dade County Public Defender is withdrawing from all felony cases except murder and child rape. Bennett Brummer said this week that his office cannot ethically accept more cases than his attorneys have time to properly handle. A court hearing is set for Friday.
  • In Minnesota, the state Public Defender Office is laying off 16 percent of its attorneys (72 of 440), and will stop representing parents in child welfare cases and defendants in some drug court cases.
  • In Kentucky, the Department of Public Advocacy will drop about 10,000 to 20,000 cases per year, including involuntary civil commitments and family court cases. The chief justice of the Supreme Court called it an impending legal crisis: "Without adequate defense counsel, the public simply cannot be confident that persons are not being wrongfully convicted of crimes."
  • In Atlanta, Georgia, the state public defender is closing one office and laying off lawyers, leaving 1,850 defendants without lawyers. A class-action lawsuit brought by several of the suspects and their attorneys claims the firings will replace adequate representation with “lawyers who meet, greet and plead their clients in as little time as possible."
If public defenders refuse a case, the courts may appoint private contract attorneys. In Atlanta, the proposal is to pay these private lawyers $200 for each plea bargain and $600 for each trial. It is hard for me to see how this meager payment could possibly engender adequate legal representation.

The crisis bodes poorly for forensic psychologists who make their living in the criminal justice sector. Unqualified attorneys who are simply collecting checks have little incentive to contract for necessary investigation or psychological evaluations for their indigent clients. As in the rural Mississippi county described above, the only way they can make a buck is by strong-arming guilty pleas at arraignment.

More importantly, it bodes poorly for those who are actually innocent. Based on DNA exonerations, Scott Henson over at Grits for Breakfast estimates there are probably about 2,300 to 5,000 innocent people locked up in Texas prisons alone. If the current crisis continues, that number is bound to grow.

The Wall Street Journal's Law Blog, ABC News, and the New York Times have more on the crisis. Hat tip to Bruce for telling me about the conservative "Starve the Beast" doctrine.

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