Pennsylvania Public Defenders Hopeful as Momentum for Funding Increases Grow

by Lauren Jessop


The governor’s proposed budget may provide a boost to a bill working its way through the Senate that would fund public defender offices and bring the state into compliance with constitutional mandates.

The current version of Senate Bill 371 – sponsored by Sens. Lisa Baker, R-Dallas, and Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia – would establish an Indigent Defense Advisory Committee to determine county standards and a grant program to fund services. Both would fall under the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency.

The new advisory committee would also work with the PCCD to ensure grant awards are appropriately dispersed and consistent with established standards.

Gov. Josh Shapiro addressed the issue in his budget proposal on Tuesday. In a press release he said that Pennsylvania is one of only two states in the nation that does not allocate funding for indigent defense, resulting in wide disparities in the quality of legal representation across the state’s 67 counties.

Shapiro proposed an investment of $10 million through the PCCD and the Criminal Justice Advisory Committee to ensure public defenders have the resources they need.

When asked how the governor’s proposal would affect the bill and its structure, Baker told The Center Square, “the most important thing is that the governor, a former prosecutor, emphasized the priority he is placing on providing significant funding for indigent defense.”

In all likelihood, she said, his proposal is based on current conditions and structure of the PCCD, rather than on prospective legislation that has just begun moving through the General Assembly.

Baker also said that details – the amount of state money, method of allocation, eligibility factors – might change and are subject to negotiation over the course of the budget process.

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the right guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment is essential to a fair trial, placing responsibility on states to provide legal help to indigent defendants who are charged with a crime that may lead to imprisonment. The Pennsylvania Supreme Court agreed, and in 2016 decided that criminal defendants may sue counties for failing to adequately fund public defender offices.

Funding currently comes from each county’s budget and can become burdensome, as in the case of Luzerne County last fall. Due to funding and staff shortages, they were forced to stop providing public defenders to nonincarcerated citizens charged with misdemeanors.

A 2021 report on indigent defense funding and caseloads by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee found vast differences in expenditures from county to county, but on average, public defenders in Pennsylvania spend $1,216.54 per case disposed.

Sara Jacobson, executive director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania, told The Center Square, “access to justice should not be dependent on your zip code.”

“The Indigent Defense Advisory Committee would help fill the shortfall in the current system,” said Jacobson. “Counties just can’t keep up with the effective assistance of counsel that [the] Constitution requires.”

“We are grateful there is bipartisan support for the bill, and its passage would be a massive step forward,” she continued. “For it to truly improve our justice system, however, the grant fund needs real, consistent funding. Governor Shapiro’s pledge is a good first step.”

A similar bill failed to pass during the last legislative session, but Baker remains optimistic.

“No unsettling policy or fiscal objection has surfaced yet,” she said. “We look forward to gaining additional insight into the governor’s plan during the upcoming budget hearings.”

“Since previous legislation passed the Senate late in process,” she added, “the changing dynamics in the new session have given advocates a renewed sense of optimism that a sustained push can yield success.”

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Lauren Jessop is a contributor to The Center Square. 
Photo “Lisa Baker” by Senator Lisa Baker. Photo “Vincent Hughes” by Senator Vincent Hughes. Background Photo “Pennsylvania State Capitol” by Dough4872. CC BY-SA 4.0.


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