Public defense systems serve millions of people in the United States every year. Nearly four out of five people charged with a crime are eligible for court-appointed counsel. Yet, despite the obvious need for a working public defense system to serve so many clients, many public defense systems across the country have been in a state of “chronic crisis” for decades.Some of the more alarming findings:
Failing to provide the constitutionally guaranteed right to effective counsel, regardless of one’s ability to pay, is not simply a denial of justice, it is costly to individuals, families, communities and taxpayers. Individuals who do not receive quality defense may be more likely to end up behind bars or with a criminal conviction that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Families are torn apart when a loved one is sent to prison or can no longer work due to the collateral consequences of a conviction. Communities suffer both in terms of public safety and through unnecessarily losing friends, neighbors and co-workers who are locked up. And taxpayers bear the monetary costs when under-resourcing legal defense results in more—and more expensive— incarceration.
Over the last 25 years, spending on public defense has increased, but it remains far below other criminal justice expenditures, including corrections and police protection. While there are many contributing factors leading to rising incarceration, underfunding of public defender offices may be one of these. In 2008, for every one dollar spent on public defense, taxpayers spend nearly $14 on corrections.To put it simply, budget cuts = fewer public defenders = higher caseloads = inadequate counsel = prison.
Rural and urban county areas may face unique challenges when it comes to providing quality public defense, but county-based funding can have a negative impact on both— creating disparities across systems.The counties most in need of indigent defense services are often the ones that least can afford to pay for it.
This by no means is to blame our public defenders (who soldier on in spite of inadequate funding), but when we spend two to three times more on public prosecution than we do on public defense, we are guaranteeing failure in our adversarial system of justice.
The "hodgepodge" of public defender programs, ranging from too little independence to too much oversight, "creates a system in which a person’s access to justice varies wildly depending on the zip code or county in which he or she was accused of an offense."
And all of this funnels more and more defendants into our system of mass incarceration. At the jail level, indigent pre-trial defendants who can't get counsel are unable to meet minimal bail/bond amounts (which fills our jails with hundreds of thousands "presumed innocent" persons); and at the prison level, inadequate representation leads to higher convictions and a pipeline directly from jail to prison.
There are five primary ways in which inadequate public defense systems can increase the number of people that are unnecessarily incarcerated:We know the price tags already ($75 billion a year on incarceration alone, and counting), but the "invisible punishments" and costs are just as detrimental.
1. more pretrial detention for people who do not need it;
2. increased pressure to plead guilty;
3. wrongful convictions and other errors;
4. excessive and inappropriate sentences that fail to take into account the unique circumstances of the case; and
5. increased barriers to successful reentry into the community.
While it is important to measure these economic costs of criminal justice policies, the consequences of inadequate public defense for the people being defended, their families and entire communities are just as serious. Having so many people in prisons and jails across the country has a significant impact on communities and families, especially communities of color and those of lower income. People are taken away from their families, children are left without role models—especially male role models— and families struggle to get by on single incomes.As someone who has studied corrections for 15 years, there isn't much in this report's details that are shocking or revelatory. But the cumulative effect of the points being made is alarming: public support of defense is just as vital as public support of prosecution, and shortchanging defense creates bigger problems both in the criminal justice system and society-at-large.
Obviously we live in times today when government spending on anything has people up in arms (see also: the ongoing "debt crisis" sitcom playing out in D.C. at the moment), but the bottom line is simple: increased expenditures made on defense will offset (or even save) the money guaranteed to be spent on incarceration if we continue to allow our system of public defense to die on the vine during tough times.
To put it another way: you're going to pay, one way or the other. The question is where: more money on defense or more on imprisonment?