Cops, Courts and Fire Government

PA Advisory Committee Releases Plan For Historic Public Defense Money

The state is putting $7.5 million toward public defense.

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By Danielle Ohl | Spotlight PA

A view of the Pennsylvania Capitol in Harrisburg. File photo.

The committee in charge of Pennsylvania’s newly appropriated public defense dollars revealed Friday just how much of the historic funding each county will be able to access, with both larger metropolitan counties and rural jurisdictions alike eligible for the largest awards.

The Indigent Defense Advisory Committee (IDAC) first met in February to figure out how Pennsylvania will divvy up $7.5 million the legislature earmarked for public defense at the end of last year. The funding marked the first time the state has dedicated money to criminal defense for people who cannot afford a lawyer.

Last week’s announcement revealed the committee will create a noncompetitive grant program that will allow each county to access a formula-based slice of that multimillion-dollar pie. Counties will have until May 23 to apply for their share.

“This is historic progress,” said Sara Jacobson, chair of the IDAC, in a news release. “Time and again, county-dependent support has proved inadequate. Pennsylvanians deserve the effective assistance of counsel that the Constitution requires. This is an important step in that direction.”

Indigent defense, which is provided to people who cannot afford their own attorney, is a constitutional right that counties previously shouldered entirely on their own. This led to the quality of counsel varying statewide.

A 2021 county-by-county review by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee of the General Assembly found wide differences in the resources each county dedicated to public defense at the time. The study found that Philadelphia spent 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 just $3.20 per person.

Now, both Mifflin and Philadelphia are among the counties entitled to the largest maximum awards, $141,720 and $111,973, respectively.

The legislature earmarked 10 percent of the $7.5 million to support the IDAC and other administrative costs of running the grant program. The committee used a funding formula to divide the remaining $6.75 million. Each county will get $75,000 to start, with funding added based on their population, caseload, poverty rate, and pre-pandemic spending on public defense.

The money can be used to support salaries, recruitment and retention efforts, data collection and management, training and technical support, and other things, according to the IDAC guidelines.

Grant applications also must align with the two proposed standards the committee published on Friday. If the standards are approved by the state Supreme Court, they would govern the quality of public defense provided in the commonwealth.

The first outlines a structure for indigent defense in Pennsylvania: it should be adequately funded by the state, it should include a mix of dedicated public defenders, court-appointed private counsel, and support staff; attorneys and support staff should be paid adequately; and there should be a parity of resources between the defense and the prosecution.

The second mandates that public defenders adopt a “client-centered approach to representation” that focuses on the needs of the defendant and is buttressed by assistance from social workers, case investigators, paralegals, and others.

While the grant program will provide a boost to the resources available to the offices, it will not put them on the same footing as well-funded prosecutors offices that have received millions of dollars from the state for years.

“More will be needed,” said Julia Burke, a member of the committee and a public defender in Blair County, in a news release. “Over the last 26 years, the Commonwealth has provided prosecutors over $180 million in salary supports alone.”

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