18 March 2004

Bryan Gates comments on my post from yesterday about the Virginia Legislature adding a layer of bureaucracy rather than actually dealing with the core problem of indigent defense being woefully underpaid:
The Indigent Commission is a typical government response to a problem. When one was started [in North Carolina] the first thing it did was hire an executive director and staff. None of these people represent anyone, indigent or otherwise. That office has an overhead of about $500,000 per year. Then a series of meetings was scheduled.

The commission consisted of judges, legislators, law professors, and a few prominent (i.e. rich) criminal defense lawyers. Page after page of rules were proposed and passed. The forms we filled out to get paid got revised and grew longer. Standards were set. Training was mandated.

While the Indigent Commission was sold to lawyers as a way to improve defense, it was sold to the legislature as a way to control costs. Few law-and-order legislators really care whether defendants get an adequate defense, most can't vote.

None of this solves the true problem. The state does not pay enough to get the job done. North Carolina will eventually shift to a "socialized" criminal justice system. Full-time government employees will handle both prosecution and defense. The public defenders the state hires will have to be paid a decent wage comparable to other government lawyers. This system will provide a sound basic defense for almost all criminal defendants. There will be less legislative griping about costs since full-time state employees are hard to paint as high-living money grubbing lawyers.

The down side is that people like you and I will be out of the loop. We will care less about what happens in criminal court because we never go there. The criminal courts will become the territory of government lawyers. I'm not saying that public defenders can't do a good job. However, overall far fewer lawyers will have any front-line criminal defense experience. That will be a loss to the profession and to justice.
Unfortunately, I think the trend here will eventually be to a public defender system as well. However, I am not convinced that this will solve the problem; I think it may just be a way of hiding it. At least in Virginia, public defender offices are sold to the Legislature as a way to save money. They are expected to live within a budget. This means that there are only so many people in the office and the legislature doesn't want to increase their budget any more than it does the funds for court appointed attorneys. In the end I fear this will lead to a small number of public defenders buried under so much work that - no matter how talented and devoted the attorneys are - proper representation becomes impossible. It's my understanding that the Richmond public defender office got so overloaded early this year that it stopped taking cases. I must say that the one thing I hope is true is that the law will "allow the newly formed commission to set caseload limits for public defender offices."

I also agree that the creation of public defender offices curtail the participation of many others in the system. Of course, there will always be the conflicts when there are multiple defendants but that doesn't leave much room for those outside of the government run system who want to practice criminal law. I note that I have heard from a number of people that prior to the creation of the federal public defender office for the Eastern District of Virginia it was much easier to develop a federal practice. I have been lucky in that I gotten a number of cases since I started practicing there but I know other lawyers who are on the list and have yet to get a case (in fairness, much of this is caused by the quick timeframe of federal work - you are often called and asked about availability for a Friday hearing on Wednesday).

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