03 November 2011

Newly released report indicates Pennslyvania's public defender system lacks consistency

By Mary O’Rourke, Juris Blogger
Allegheny County Chief Public Defender Michael Machen recently released a draft of a report created under the authority of a 2007 Senate Resolution inquiring into Pennsylvania’s indigent defense system, which indicates that the quality of representation provided for Pennsylvania’s indigent defendants greatly differs from county to county. The draft, created by a 16 person advisory committee, which includes Machen, states that Pennsylvania’s current system of providing the indigent with defense counsel places the responsibility of representing the poor, a constitutional requirement under Gideon v. Wainwright, to individual counties, which in turn, creates inherent disparities in representation for defendants between those counties who can afford providing for resources for indigent defendants and those who cannot.

As a solution, the committee suggests that the state merge each county’s public defender program into one state controlled office in order to create more uniform and effective public defender offices, with the exception of Philadelphia, whose public defender office is operated as an independent nonprofit organization. The draft report recommends that these newly created state offices adopt and administer the American Bar Association’s Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, which suggests some of the following principles be implemented to ensure high quality representation for indigent criminal defendants:

•   Defense counsel’s workload is controlled to permit the rendering of quality representation.
•   The same attorney continuously represent the client until the completion of the case,
     otherwise as vertical representation.
•   Defense counsel is supervised and systematically reviewed for quality and efficiency according
     to nationally and locally adopted standards.

The report mentions several concerns, including the fact that many of Pennsylvania’s counties are so burdened with excessive caseloads that public defenders are effectively prohibited from providing indigent defendants with adequate representation. And Pennsylvania is not alone. Public Defender’s offices in states such as Tennessee, Minnesota and Missouri have filed suit against their state governments because their caseloads have become so overwhelmingly large. The problem is that legislators transform the issue into a bipartisan battlefield, essentially disregarding the fact that providing indigents with a defense is a question of constitutional fairness, not whether or not criminals deserve a lawyer free of charge.

The fate of Pennsylvania’s fragmented indigent defense system is currently up in the air. The committee’s final draft is set to be released to the public and presented to the Senate within the next month. Regardless of what the Senate decides to implement as a result of the report’s findings, one thing is for sure: Pennsylvania’s public defense system is in dire need of a change in order to comply with federal Constitutional protections. As predicted by David Carroll, Director of Research for the National Legal Aid & Defender Association, “When Pennsylvania policymakers realize how far off the mark they have fallen from the Sixth Amendment, I fully expect them to come together to fix these issues.”

Mary O'Rourke is currently a 2L at Duquense University. She is a Research Assistant at the Duquesne Center for Legal Information as well as a Legal Intern at the Allegheny County District Attorney's Office. Mary earned her undergraduate degree at Temple University in Philadelphia, PA, with a major in Criminal Justice and minor in Political Science. She will graduate from Duquesne Law School in 2013 and may be reached at marylorourke@gmail.com