The only problem, according to criminal justice advocates? It’s not nearly enough money.
In June, tucked into a piece of budget legislation known as the fiscal code, lawmakers approved a $500,000 allocation to reimburse counties for costs of indigent criminal defense in capital cases.
The money will be distributed through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.
Drew Crompton, a top lawyer for Senate Republicans, said this year’s allocation is “in the spirit” of a 2018 recommendation from the Joint State Government Commission, which found in a study of Pennsylvania’s death penalty that the state didn’t provide sufficient resources for poor, or indigent, defendants.
While the $500,000 grant program might not cover all costs related to indigent defense in capital cases, Crompton said, it could lead to larger investments in the future.
“I don’t think we were looking to offset every dollar of capital cases,” Crompton told the Capital-Star on Monday. “We’re just going to have to see how the program works.”
Under the sixth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, anyone charged with a crime is entitled to a lawyer. If a defendant is too poor to hire one, a court will assign a public defender to their case.
Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t allocate general funds for indigent defense, according to a 2011 study by the Joint State Government Commission. Those costs are borne entirely by the state’s 67 counties, which each maintain their own public defender’s office.
The system “is particularly burdensome to the poorer counties, which must contend with the dual handicap of scant resources and high crime rates,” the report reads.
Last year, an investigation by Keystone Crossroads found that those problems had hardly improved. In addition to wide spending disparities among counties, reporters found that the caseload for public defenders had risen, even as crime has fallen across the state.
Phyllis Subin, a former public defender who now heads the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice in Philadelphia, has long called on Pennsylvania to direct state funds to indigent defense. A $500,000 earmark for capital murder cases, she says, isn’t nearly enough to ensure fair representation for the state’s poor defendants.
“It’s a small and … an unrealistic appropriation,” Subin said. “This is pretty much a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed in terms of appropriate and systemic change.”
Marc Bookman, a lawyer and director of the Atlantic Center for Capital Representation, an anti-death penalty legal aid group based in Philadelphia, put it another way.
“Imagine there’s a terrible drought across Pennsylvania and the Legislature decides to address the problem by opening up a lemonade stand in Harrisburg,” Bookman said. “That’s what they’ve done here to address the state-wide problem with capital punishment.”
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