Wednesday, December 27, 2023

Pennsylvania will finally provide state funding for indigent defense

Pennsylvania will finally provide state funding for local public defenders, leaving South Dakota as the only state not to fund indigent defense, according to the Sixth Amendment Center.

Earlier in the year, Pennsylvania Governor Josh Shapiro included $10 million for indigent defense in the annual budget (subsequently decreased to $7.5 million). However, this new funding could not be used without the state legislature passing a fiscal code allowing for it.

On December 13, the final day of the 2023 session, the legislature passed the fiscal code creating an indigent defense advisory group within the existing Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The indigent defense advisory group is tasked with proposing minimum statewide standards on qualifications and data collection, providing training, and awarding grants.

Looking back, Pennsylvania has long been on notice for failing to ensure effective representation:

·        A 1995 ABA-sponsored report concluded that Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) prevented the public defender’s office from providing constitutionally adequate representation through underfunding and neglect. 

A    A 2011 ACLU report concluded Allegheny County achieved no improvements in the intervening 16 years.

A 2002 NLADA report found that Venango County’s public defender office was understaffed and underfunded.

A 2003 Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias in the Justice System report found serious indigent defense deficiencies, including a prevalence of flat fee contracts creating disincentives to effective advocacy.

A 2003 Juvenile Law Center report found serious deficiencies in the delivery of indigent defense to juvenile defendants statewide.

A 2011 Joint State Government Task Force on Services to Indigent Criminal Defendants report found that the problems identified in the 2003 Supreme Court Committee remained.

A 2021 Legislative Budget and Finance Committee report found that Pennsylvania public defender offices lacked caseload controls.

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