Pennsylvania provides state money for public defense for the first time

This story originally appeared on Spotlight PA.

Pennsylvania will soon convene a committee to decide how to spend the state’s first-ever funding for public defense, though experts cautioned the investment won’t be enough to level the playing field.

In December, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved $7.5 million for criminal defense for those who cannot afford a lawyer, a constitutional right that counties paid for without state assistance.

“Thanks to historic legislation signed by Gov. [Josh] Shapiro, Pennsylvania will no longer be one of only two states in the country that does not allocate state funding for public defenders,” said Manuel Bonder, spokesperson for the Democratic governor.

Every person accused of a crime must have access to an attorney to aid in their defense, a right that has been enshrined in the 6th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution for 60 years. Until now, Pennsylvania state coffers did not contribute any funds to that purpose.

Shapiro had initially proposed $10 million in his budget, but negotiations with the legislature knocked the figure down a few million. The new state money addresses Pennsylvania’s reputation as one of the only states in the country that did not fund public defense. Now, questions remain on how the money will be distributed and used.

Alongside the money, the legislature passed language establishing an Indigent Defense Advisory Committee that will figure out how to use it. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will oversee the committee and has until Feb. 12 to establish the membership, which must include public defenders from across the state as well as judges, academics, and legislative appointees.

Once in place, the committee will decide how the $7.5 million will be spent to best benefit Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It will also determine universal standards for public defense, which up until now has been hampered in some counties by a lack of resources.

“The public defenders I know are incredibly talented attorneys,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia), whose legislation formed the basis for the language passed as part of the budget deal in December.

But talented attorneys can only do so much without adequate resources, Hughes said. “If that public defender is carrying several hundred cases, the amount of time they have available is limited,” he said.

  • January 11, 2024
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