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Pennsylvania’s underfunding of public defenders unconstitutional, ACLU says in suit

The state's failure to fund indigent defense makes it impossible to provide Pennsylvanians with due process and equal protection, the ACLU claims.

(CN) — The American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania sued the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, arguing that the state has underfunded its public defenders to the point of violating federal and state constitutional law.

The class action, filed Thursday in Pennsylvania Commonwealth court, says the state’s failure to sufficiently fund indigent defense has severely limited public defenders’ ability to properly represent their clients, stretching them too thin across overwhelming caseloads and limiting Pennsylvanians’ ability to seek a fair criminal trial.

Along with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the lawsuit also included as defendants Governor Josh Shapiro, Senate President Pro Tempore Kim Ward and House Speaker Joanna McClinton.

“The U.S. and Pennsylvania constitutions give people a right to counsel if they face jail time,” said Witold Walczak, legal director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a news release. “That right means more than a warm body with a law degree by your side; it requires an effective professional who has the time and resources to prepare a defense. Pennsylvania’s grossly under-funded system leads to overwhelming caseloads that make effective representation practically impossible, even for the most dedicated lawyers.”

Until March of this year, Pennsylvania was one of only two U.S. states to provide zero funding for indigent defense, leaving counties to foot the entire bill of public defenders in the Keystone State.

Shapiro — who called the lack of state funding a “shameful distinction” — introduced and passed last year a state budget that includes $7.5 million for indigent defense. A state committee later announced that only about $6.75 million would directly support counties’ indigent defense services.

In their lawsuit, the ACLU argues that $6.7 million “is not nearly enough” to meet the needs of the state’s indigent defense programs, matching only 5% of the $125 million spent by Pennsylvania counties on public defender officers in 2020.

For Pennsylvania’s per capita state spending on indigent defense to fall in line with the national average, the suit reads, state officials would have to appropriate approximately $100 million in additional funding. 

“Excluding the Defender Association of Pennsylvania (a non-profit corporation), Pennsylvania is tied with Mississippi for the worst funded state public defender system on a per capita basis,” said Mike Lee, executive director of the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a statement. “Governor Shapiro’s budget allocation of $7.5 million is better than zero. But it is nowhere near the amount necessary to solve this crisis.”

With minimal funding allocated for indigent defense, public defender offices across Pennsylvania are “chronically understaffed” and their attorneys constantly overworked, the ACLU said in their lawsuit.

In one study published this year, conservative estimates found that at least 64 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties did not have enough public defender attorneys to meet national standards.

Furthermore, the study found that 47 counties would need to more than double their number of attorney staff to meet national standards.

This failure to sufficiently fund the state’s public defender offices has severely limited offices’ ability to retain experienced attorneys, the ACLU said, leaving novice attorneys to manage complex, high-stakes cases that they are oftentimes not prepared for.

The ACLU notes that in Luzerne County, an attorney with only one year of legal experience was assigned first-degree felony cases due to staffing shortages. And in Armstrong County, county commissioners appointed an attorney who graduated from law school one year prior as chief public defender.

“This litigation is as much about bringing to light the injustices suffered by our own petitioners, and the countless others like them, as it is about acknowledging the nearly impossible tasks of effectively representing thousands of people each year which public defenders are routinely expected to do with little to no resources,” said Veronica miller, senior policy counsel for criminal legal reform at the ACLU of Pennsylvania, in a news release.

“As a former public defender, I was constantly overwhelmed by the immense pressure to meet the standards of representation demanded by my profession and the emotional toll of feeling powerless to change the status quo of the system I was in,” she added.

While the ACLU’s lawsuit does not seek monetary relief, it does request that the court find Pennsylvania in violation of the U.S. and state constitutions, which could force the state to increase its funding for indigent defense.

Manuel Bonder, a spokesperson for Shapiro, said the governor is aware that a lack of funding for public defenders has created "unacceptable inequities in our legal system," but added that he had secured $7.5 million for indigent defense in last year's budget.

"Governor Shapiro has made it clear he believes every Pennsylvanian deserves fair and equal treatment under the law — and he is going to continue to fight for fairness in our criminal justice system," Bonder said. "We are reviewing the complaint and cannot comment further.”

A spokesperson for McClinton told Courthouse News that the House speaker supports increasing funds for public defense attorneys in the state.

“Speaker McClinton started her career as a public defender and knows firsthand the value that indigent defense plays in the judicial system,” spokesperson Nicole Reigelman said. “Since being elected in 2015, she has used her experience as a defender to inform her policy agenda and has been an outspoken champion of legislation to improve access to legal counsel for indigent clients. Speaker McClinton celebrated when funding for indigent defense was finally included in the 2023/24 state budget and continues to advocate for additional dollars.”

Erica Clayton Wright, spokesperson for Ward, told Courthouse News that her office had received the ACLU’s press release, but had not yet received the lawsuit and would need time to review it before providing comment.

Categories / Civil Rights, Government, Law, Regional

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