Saturday, February 20, 2010

National Symposium on Indigent Defense: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2010

The National Symposium on Indigent Defense: Looking Back, Looking Forward 2010 was held in Washington D.C. this past week and was attended by more than 600 public defenders, judges and elected officials, including Attorney General Eric Holder. The Symposium's goal is discuss ways to better defend those without the means to hire their own attorneys. San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi gave a presentation on the crisis in indigent defense funding and discussed how his office has dealt with the increasing demand for legal services created by the economic recession. The San Francisco Public Defender's Office has faced cuts of nearly $1 million dollars which forced the office to refuse appointment of cases and led to outsourcing hundreds of cases to private attorneys due to lack of staffing. Adachi has been a vocal opponent of the budget cuts, saying that it costs the city much more to outsource cases than to have his office provide representation. Adachi’s prediction came true, with more than $3.2 million in private counsel costs being requested by the court to cover cases that the Public Defender could have handled with adequate staffing. As an interesting side-note, San Francisco Public Defender Jeff Adachi is a publicly elected official, one of the few publicly elected public defender's in the country.

Here is an excerpt from Attorney General Eric Holder's remarks given at the Symposium (full remarks here).

As we all know, public defender programs are too many times under-funded. Too often, defenders carry huge caseloads that make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to fulfill their legal and ethical responsibilities to their clients. Lawyers buried under these caseloads often can't interview their clients properly, file appropriate motions, conduct fact investigations, or spare the time needed to ask and apply for additional grant funding. And the problem is about more than just resources. In some parts of the country, the primary institutions for the delivery of defense to the poor – I'm talking about basic public defender systems – simply do not exist.

I continue to believe that if our fellow citizens knew about the extent of this problem, they would be as troubled as you and I. Public education about this issue is critical. For when equal justice is denied, we all lose.

As a prosecutor and former judge, I know that the fundamental integrity of our criminal justice system, and our faith in it, depends on effective representation on both sides. And I recognize that some may perceive the goals of those who represent our federal, state, and local governments and the goals of those who represent the accused as forever at odds. I reject that premise. Although they may stand on different sides of an argument, the prosecution and the defense can, and must, share the same objective: Not victory, but justice. Otherwise, we are left to wonder if justice is truly being done, and left to wonder if our faith in ourselves and in our systems is misplaced.

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