Crisis within the justice system Funding, reform and volunteers are needed to help defendants too poor to pay, according to ABA leaders

By Alexandra Buller

American Bar Association News Service

ATLANTA -- Public defender offices across the country are overwhelmed with too many cases and too few attorneys, forcing defenders to "meet 'em and plead 'em," said professor Stephen B. Bright, president and senior counsel at the Southern Center for Human Rights.

Though state courts are required to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys, the pressure of work prevents lawyers from adequately meeting with these clients, conducting factual investigations, performing necessary research and preparing for trial and sentencing. This has caused what the American Bar Association calls a crisis within the justice system.

The meeting of leading legal indigent defense experts and lawyers from across the country was designed to explore solutions to the crisis. Among solutions discussed: a federal response, coalition building in support of indigent defense, litigation to compel adequate funding, structural reforms and private bar participation in defense systems.

Bright explained, "There are massive amounts of federal funds for task forces and prosecuting indigents, but there's no federal funding for representing indigents."

"Everyone is talking about indigent defense as a crisis, but the government does not appear to be acting in crisis mode," said Jo-Anne Wallace, president of the National Legal Aid & Defender Association and veteran of the Washington, D.C., Public Defenders office. "Educating people that the system is in crisis can build momentum for change," she said. "[In crisis mode] people are held accountable, people fix the situation and the government finds the money to address issues that need to be addressed," Wallace stated.

Calling for state and federal support--sentiment that echoed through the panel--Wallace said, "We need to balance the scales of justice and resources and time are critical components... We have a will to change [the system], but not the means... for the means we need the federal government."

Litigation strategies to reform state indigent defense and compel funding were discussed by Corey Stoughton, lead counsel in Hurrell-Harring v. State of New York, a case that may serve as a model to other states to help reform their indigent defense programs. According to Stoughton, 20 people currently charged with a crime and receiving state-sponsored legal help are being denied their constitutional right to adequate counsel.

"The problem isn't bad lawyers, it's a bad system," Stoughton said. "We need to make people believe in it [reform] to have a solution and unless you get legislatures to agree, you'll just stay in court."

Stoughtonalso explained that the media tends to focus on extreme cases of bad lawyers within the system, overlooking the main problem with the system making it "hard to change the narrative" of the crisis.

Finally, Norman Lefstein, past chairman of the Indiana Public Defender Commission and former dean of Indiana University Law School- Indianapolis, discussed the importance of active involvement by the private bar and need for expert public defenders in order for solutions to the crisis to work.

Published: Tue, Feb 15, 2011