Pennsylvania provides state money for public defense for the first time
Pennsylvania will soon convene a committee to decide how to spend the state's first-ever funding for public defense, though experts cautioned the investment won't be enough to level the playing field.
In December, the Pennsylvania state legislature approved $7.5 million for criminal defense for those who cannot afford a lawyer, a constitutional right that counties paid for without state assistance.
“Thanks to historic legislation signed by Gov. [Josh] Shapiro, Pennsylvania will no longer be one of only two states in the country that does not allocate state funding for public defenders,” said Manuel Bonder, spokesperson for the Democratic governor.
Every person accused of a crime must have access to an attorney to aid in their defense, a right that has been enshrined in the 6th and 14th Amendments of the United States Constitution for 60 years. Until now, Pennsylvania state coffers did not contribute any funds to that purpose.
Shapiro had initially proposed $10 million in his budget, but negotiations with the legislature knocked the figure down a few million. The new state money addresses Pennsylvania’s reputation as one of the only states in the country that did not fund public defense. Now, questions remain on how the money will be distributed and used.
Alongside the money, the legislature passed language establishing an Indigent Defense Advisory Committee that will figure out how to use it. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency will oversee the committee and has until Feb. 12 to establish the membership, which must include public defenders from across the state as well as judges, academics, and legislative appointees.
Once in place, the committee will decide how the $7.5 million will be spent to best benefit Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. It will also determine universal standards for public defense, which up until now has been hampered in some counties by a lack of resources.
“The public defenders I know are incredibly talented attorneys,” said state Sen. Vincent Hughes (D., Philadelphia), whose legislation formed the basis for the language passed as part of the budget deal in December.
But talented attorneys can only do so much without adequate resources, Hughes said. “If that public defender is carrying several hundred cases, the amount of time they have available is limited,” he said.
Under the new law, counties must supplement the state money with their own funding, which varies drastically across the state. Philadelphia, for example, provides extensive public defense services through the city’s Defender Association, a nonprofit firm that receives most of its funding from the city.
Chief Defender Keisha Hudson told Spotlight PA in April that the Defender Association budget alone is more than $50 million, six times larger than the money the legislature approved to aid counties. The organization’s budget helps employ 500 attorneys, investigators, and social workers.
A county-by-county review by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee of the General Assembly in 2021 found Philadelphia spends the most money on criminal defense per person, around $30.20 in fiscal year 2019.
The same year, Mifflin County in rural central Pennsylvania spent $3.20 per person.
The December legislation also directs the new committee to develop educational curricula for public defenders, particularly for capital offense cases, and to collect data that will help the state oversee the quality of counsel being provided on a county level.
The goal is to have the funds distributed thoughtfully, said Hughes, and provide support as data comes in.
It won’t be enough to level the playing field, said Sara Jacobsen, director of the Public Defenders Association of Pennsylvania, who will serve on the committee. Prosecutors have received millions of state dollars for decades, she said.
But the $7.5 million might be able to address technological deficiencies that prevent local offices from measuring their caseloads and ensuring no single attorney has too many cases or all of the most difficult cases, she said.
“There are new national public defender workload standards that are out this year that would help offices say for X number of cases we need Y number of lawyers,” Jacobsen said, “but offices in Pennsylvania can't even do that calculation if they don't have basic case management.”
And though the new funding marks a historic step forward, it does little to move Pennsylvania’s ranking among other states, said David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center, which tracks how states live up to the constitutional promise of free public defense.
“[Pennsylvania’s] indigent defense cost-per-capita figure rises only slightly (from $9.67 to $10.25),” Carroll wrote in an email to Spotlight PA. “For comparison, the national average in 2022 was $19.67.”
Pennsylvania ranks 45th in total indigent defense funding, Carroll said. The states that spend less per capita are Mississippi, Hawaii, Oklahoma, Missouri, and Texas.
90.5 WESA partners with Spotlight PA, a collaborative, reader-funded newsroom producing accountability journalism for all of Pennsylvania. More at spotlightpa.org.