Justice does not come cheap

Radley Balko has this fantastic piece in Reason, making a compelling argument for greater funding for public defender offices nationwide.

His starting points are the high-profile DNA exonerations, the Duke lacrosse case and Kevin Davis’ Defending The Damned [Davis was profiled on our sister blog, PD Stuff, here].

The piece first explores the prevailing perception of public defenders and why it is mistaken.

[Davis’ book] should make readers reconsider the contempt routinely heaped on public defenders. Perhaps, given recent headlines, there’s actually some merit to the public defender’s familiar complaints about inadequate funding, heavy caseloads, and prosecutorial misconduct.

As U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black once wrote, if the state aims to take away someone’s freedom, the defendant has an “absolute, unqualified right to compel the State to investigate its own case, find its own witnesses, prove its own facts, and convince the jury through its own resources. Throughout the process, the defendant has a fundamental right to remain silent, in effect challenging the State at every point to ‘Prove it!’?”

He then tackles the central point: Funding.

Most public defender’s offices don’t have those resources. A 1999 U.S. Justice Department study of the country’s 100 most populous counties found that 97 percent of their law enforcement budgets went toward police, courts, and prosecutors, with the remaining 3 percent going to public defenders. That study didn’t include less populous, rural areas of the country, where the public defender position rotates among private-practice attorneys or is filled by a single lawyer in private practice who receives a stipend of a few thousand dollars per year.

Finally, he artfully tells us why it is imperative that public defenders should have the same resources as prosecutors:

The fundamental function of government is to secure the rights of its citizens. There has never been much problem generating support for the law enforcement side of that responsibility: courts, police, prosecutors, and prisons. The government seems eager to protect us from criminals. But it’s also obliged not to violate our rights in the process.

If we’re serious about giving everyone a fair crack at justice, indigent defendants need access to the same sorts of resources prosecutors have, including their own independent experts and investigators. If we’re going to generously fund the government’s efforts to imprison people, we need to ensure that everyone the government pursues is adequately defended and protected from prosecutorial overreach. The ongoing stream of exonerations in felony cases suggests we’re a long way from that goal.

Tip of the hat to Skelly. The comments to Balko’s piece are also very interesting. Be sure to check them out.

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