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Politics & Government

Bill Would Bolster Training For Indigent Defense Lawyers

Advocates Tuesday urged state Senate lawmakers to support better training for lawyers tasked with defending adult criminal defendants and juvenile delinquents who can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

A measure before state lawmakers would create such a program with $1 million in the next fiscal year.

Access to such free counsel is required under the U.S. Constitution and federal case law, but Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t help fund county offices providing indigent defense.

Al Flora, a former chief public defender for Luzerne County, was appointed shortly after judges there were charged with accepting bribes to sentence juveniles to terms in detention centers. He said the public defender’s office in the county was severely lacking in resources.

“Without funding from the state to provide continuing resources to train these young lawyers that come into public defender offices, there will be failures. Luzerne County will not be the only one. Sooner or later, you will see another one happen,” Flora said. “So I beg you to get this bill through the committee.”

Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-Montgomery) acknowledged the inevitability of errors when indigent defense lawyers aren’t trained appropriately.

“And what happens to those cases? They end up in the appellate courts. And years later, they are reversed,” Greenleaf said. “This costs the commonwealth a lot of money, and also it causes an injustice to the individuals who are involved in the process.”

Phyllis Subin, with the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice, said the federal Department of Justice has been more aggressive lately on indigent defense systems, cracking down on cities and counties that don’t have well-funded public defender offices.  

“That should not happen in Pennsylvania,” said Subin. “By establishing this center  that can provide internet-based resources and multiday training, leadership programming for chief public defenders in the counties -- we can move Pennsylvania forward.”

Pennsylvania is the only state that doesn’t help fund indigent defense. Lizette McCormick, head of the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Gender, Racial, and Ethnic Fairness, said with that “dubious distinction,” the state should be taking steps to avoid federal scrutiny.