Investing in Equal Access to Quality Public Defense

Stacked office filesLast month, California congresswoman and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris introduced the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act. If passed, the bill would create a $250 million grant program aiming to establish workload limits for public defenders and pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors. The bill would also authorize $5 million to provide training to public defenders.

By taking on workload limits, pay parity, and training, the EQUAL defense bill would be a promising step toward fulfilling the Constitution’s promise of quality defense representation that too often goes unfulfilled. Lack of workload limits means that public defenders have crushing amounts of caseloads and are forced to resolve cases under risky time constraints. As a result, defenders are often unable to assess cases properly and appropriately advise their clients or represent their interests. In counties where prosecutors are paid more than public defenders, defense jobs are less appealing to promising lawyers struggling to pay off law school debt. Finally, in counties where defense staffing is short, new attorneys are often required to handle serious cases early in their careers without sufficient training to do so. All of these issues deprive individuals who cannot afford an attorney of their Sixth Amendment right to meaningful representation.

It is worth noting that while the EQUAL bill is certainly a step in the right direction, additional work must be done to resolve our nation’s inadequate public defense systems. Federal funding is critical, but the tangled web of barriers to access counsel is vast and hidden throughout the crevices of the criminal legal system. For example, most criminal courts are under pressure to process cases quickly, meaning court managers and judges sometimes feel the need to, albeit sometimes unintentionally, prioritize efficiency over meaningful representation. In addition, many counties across the US don’t even have a public defense office available to apply for the funds the EQUAL defense bill contemplates creating. Counties where individuals are unable to afford attorneys would garner no benefit from the EQUAL defense bill, even if passed into law. Further, while pay parity is important, so is parity of resources. To provide meaningful representation, public defenders need investigators, social workers, client advocates, and administrative staff – all of which requires additional funding beyond that contemplated by the EQUAL defense bill.

Equal access to quality defense requires funding, yes. But it also requires broad public awareness and dedicated stakeholders rallying behind the protection of this inalienable right. That is why the Right to Counsel National Campaigns dedicated to raising awareness about the myriad barriers to meaningful access to counsel and working cooperatively with court personnel and policymakers to ensure meaningful and quality defense for every accused person.