Indigent Defense: How Government Fails The Poor
Religion & Liberty Online

Indigent Defense: How Government Fails The Poor

publicdefenderThe Atlantic published an article by Dylan Walsh about the growing fight in many states for the right to legal counsel. This article focuses on the state of Louisiana, and looks specifically the Concordia Parish along the Mississippi river. Like many poor, rural areas of the country the Concordia Parish suffers from drug problems and the local courts see a high volume of cases involving illegal substances. The district’s chief public defender’s office handles around 3,300 cases per year, three times what the state recommends. Therein lies the problem.

The spiraling problem in the arena of public defense is the growing number of cases and the parallel need for more lawyers and more funds to pay them. One example given in the Louisiana case claims that some lawyers were being paid $1,000 for 100 cases, or just $10 per case. With this level of income, public defenders in his parishes often need more than one job to cover costs and cannot live on their salary as a lawyer. In one parish, the office stopped representing some accused of certain misdemeanors because of financial needs and understaffing. Walsh quotes the Louisiana Public Defender Board (that oversees each district office) which predicts the “systemic failure in the public-defense system” this summer. The failure began months ago when New Orleans public defenders office announced it would begin refusing certain cases, even serious felonies involving murder and rape.

Without the funds to pay lawyers, states like Louisiana provide no incentives for those attending law school to become a public defender. It is less a question of serving the community, and more a question of being able to provide for yourself on the incredibly low salaries when compared to other areas of the law. The defendants that need the service of public defenders often have similar traits. To qualify you must be poor, and because of aggressive policing in poor neighborhoods, especially in poor minority neighborhoods, the need for quality public defenders and the funds to pay them is rising. The problem is that even with the court provided attorneys, the quality of defense is much lower than that received by citizens that can afford their own lawyers. Public defenders receive minutes to review cases, sometimes do not even get to meet the individuals they are defending. This creates a system where the rich receive better defense than the poor, skewing the justice system against the less fortunate.

With the number of cases increasing, and the number of public defenders decreasing, the ability of public defenders to do their job and ‘defend’ the rights of the poor and marginalized becomes even harder. Louisiana is only one of the many states fighting against these costs, but the deck is certainly becoming increasingly stacked against those who cannot afford a proper defense across the United States. The current system is unstainable which raises this key question: should the government be providing public defenders in the first place? Government is proving and again to be incapable of providing for the needs of the most vulnerable in our society. There must be a better way. Leaving the poor to hands of the state in cases like this makes them vulnerable to injustice.

Anthony Bradley

Anthony B. Bradley, Ph.D., is distinguished research fellow at the Acton Institute and author of The Political Economy of Liberation: Thomas Sowell and James Cone on the Black Experience.