News 04.11.08

Adequate defense counsel can prevent wrongful convictions

Too many wrongful convictions are caused by the lack of experienced and available public defenders. For decades, the American criminal justice system has failed to consistently provide resources for the defense of people who can’t afford to hire a lawyer themselves. And the inequalities don’t stop with lawyers. Prosecutors have state resources to hire courtroom experts; they have police departments to act as investigators. Public defenders struggle with caseloads in the hundreds and nearly nonexistent funds for investigations and experts. To prevent wrongful convictions in our country, this has to change.

Headlines around the country this month show that budget shortfalls threaten even the low standards of public defense in many states. Lawmakers in Kentucky – where the average public defender has 436 clients in a year – recently

slashed $2.5 million from the state’s public defense budget

. Georgia’s public defense system is

near the breaking point

.

But there are signs of progress on the horizon:

This week, commissioners in Houston – the largest urban area in the country without a public defense office – voted to explore the creation of a department. Currently, elected judges appoint attorneys and set budgets for investigation and experts, creating a system with little quality control and no consistency.

A public defense office would bring that consistency to the city

.

Also this week, Louisiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Pascal F. Calogero, Jr.,

praised state lawmakers

for advances in public defense in recent years, and called for continued growth in the delivery of defense to the poor.

Read more about how overworked – or negligent – defense attorneys

have contributed to the problem of wrongful convictions

.

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