Tuesday, February 9, 2021

PA Governor looks to fund indigent defense

Pennsylvania is the only state in the country that doesn’t allocate general funds for indigent defense

Last November, experts at the Brennan Center, writing in USA Today, observed that “mass incarceration has been a driving force of economic inequality,” that’s only been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, reported the Pennsylvania Capital-Star.

“Involvement in the criminal justice system — specifically time in prison or conviction of a crime — casts a shadow over someone’s life, limiting their ability to earn a living wage in the short and long term,” the Brennan Center’s Ames Grawert and Terry-Ann Craigie wrote. “The effect of prison is especially pronounced: a 52 percent reduction in annual earnings and little earnings growth for the rest of their lives, amounting to a loss of $500,000 over several decades.”

So it was encouraging to hear senior staffers for Gov. Tom Wolf, say that the administration wants to “build support for indigent defense” into the spending plan for the fiscal year that starts July 1.

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 state took a token step toward redressing the balance in 2019, providing $500,000 in funding to reimburse counties for costs of indigent criminal defense in capital cases, the Capital-Star’s Elizabeth Hardison reported at the time.

The money, tucked into a piece of budget-enabling legislation known as the Fiscal Code, was distributed through a grant program administered by the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The grant program didn’t go far enough for criminal justice reformers, who called it a token amount.

“It’s a small and … an unrealistic appropriation,” Phyllis Subin, a former public defender who now heads the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice in Philadelphia, told Hardison. “This is pretty much a drop in the bucket of what’s really needed in terms of appropriate and systemic change.”

Wolf didn’t propose a specific appropriation in his 2021 spending plan, administration spokeswoman Lyndsay Kensinger told the Capital-Star on Sunday.

“The administration is looking forward to working with the Legislature to create this program in Pennsylvania,” Kensinger said.

Whatever dollar figure Wolf and lawmakers eventually negotiate, that money can’t come soon enough, Sean Quinlan, a criminal defense lawyer in Cumberland County, said. That’s particularly true in the case of death penalty prosecutions, he added.

“The death penalty is a political tool used by district attorneys in election years to seek career advancement, not criminal deterrence,” Quinlan, also a Capital-Star opinion contributor, said. “If by ‘increased funding for indigent defense’ the governor intends to plug budget holes in counties out of pocket for defense in capital cases, he’ll essentially be subsidizing the campaigns of county district attorneys, not protecting the poor or fixing a a broken system. Enormous capital case defense expenses are just the symptom. The death penalty is the disease.”

Quinlan is right. While other states are moving toward abolition (Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, like Wolf, a Democrat, is expected to sign an abolition bill any day now.), Wolf, who imposed a moratorium on executions, was notably silent on abolition during his budget address.

Pennsylvania, which hasn’t executed anyone since 1999, effectively doesn’t have a death penalty, so one wonders why Wolf didn’t just shoot the moon and propose eliminating this racist, antiquated and immoral relic.

Wolf’s spending plan does, however, call for probation and bail reforms. As we’ve previously noted, state Rep. Summer Lee, D-Allegheny, has a bill banning cash bail. Rep. Chris Rabb, D-Philadelphia, meanwhile, is expected to soon reintroduce the death penalty abolition bill he pushed in the 2019-2020 legislative session. In a tidy circle, Prejean lent her support to that effort as well.

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