Guest Commentary: America’s Public Defenders’ Offices Are Broken. Here’s How to Fix Them

By Kamala Harris

As a former prosecutor and attorney general of California, I saw our legal system at its best when we pursued justice and stood up for victims of murder, rape, and other serious crimes. It made me feel proud. But I also saw the parts of our criminal justice system that were failing—including overworked and underpaid public defenders who meant well, but were physically incapable of providing adequate services to their clients who couldn’t otherwise afford an attorney.

In 1963, the Supreme Court held that states are required to provide counsel to criminal defendants who are unable to pay for an attorney on their own. We all know the common refrain from TV police dramas: “You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you.” But that refrain often rings hollow when public defenders are overworked and lack resources.

The consequences of inadequate representation are especially worrying for communities of color, which experience institutional racism within the criminal justice system. A staggering 77 percent of black defendants facing criminal charges in state courts rely on public defenders—when those attorneys aren’t equipped to do their jobs, it’s often our communities that suffer most.

Defendants in criminal cases need lawyers who have enough time, money, and resources to unearth all of the facts in their cases. They need lawyers who can stand up in court, fully prepared to challenge the prosecution.

That is why I recently introduced the EQUAL Defense Act (pdf), which makes a serious investment in our state and local public defense systems by providing the resources that lawyers need to give every client’s case the time and attention it deserves. It will attack these injustices head-on by providing more resources for training, capping attorneys’ workloads, and bringing more people into the profession by making sure public defenders are paid on par with prosecutors.

My plan would provide $250 million to finally close the pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors within five years. The pay gap can be huge in some offices across the country. And between housing, child care, and student loan debt, young public defenders are often unable to cover the cost of living, and leave for more lucrative jobs. A study by Brooklyn Defender Services, for example, found that working public defenders worried whether their jobs were compatible with reaching financial stability and starting a family. That is simply unacceptable. When the salaries of dedicated public defenders do not allow them to cover the cost of living, they cannot do the job that their clients deserve and our Constitution requires.

The bill also establishes new workload limits for public defenders. As a prosecutor, I have seen up close how cash-strapped public defenders’ offices can be and how hard they have to fight for funding and resources. The same fight is being mounted by many other public defenders’ offices across the country, and with good reason: only 21 percent of state-based public defender offices are able to handle their caseloads with attorneys working at recommended levels. In Florida, attorneys handle 500 felony cases a year. In Louisiana, public defenders have almost five times the recommended workload, which led one federal judge to declare that “the state was failing miserably at upholding its obligations under Gideon.”

Funding will also be provided to organizations that specialize in training public defenders. And my proposal would triple the student loan repayment assistance that can be given to prosecutors and public defenders.

When I was a law clerk in the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office, I saw the tremendous power of prosecutors and judges. With the swipe of a pen, these individuals could make decisions about someone’s life and liberty. But in our adversarial system, true justice requires balance. And we cannot secure justice with such an extreme imbalance of resources. If we want to reform the criminal justice system, giving public defenders the support and resources they need is a critical part of the equation.

Kamala D. Harris is a United States senator for California. From 2011 to 2016, she serviced as California’s Attorney General and become District Attorney of San Francisco.

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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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  1. Jim Hoch

    “between housing, child care, and student loan debt, young public defenders are often unable to cover the cost of living, and leave for more lucrative jobs” 

    What is the unemployment rate for attorneys in California?  I hear 10% one year post graduation.

  2. Tia Will

    Jim, having a job is not the same as having a job that will cover even the most basic costs of living. The employment rate reflects the former. Harris is discussing the latter.

  3. Eric Gelber

    This federal legislation is a start and would be a positive step, but it would certainly not fix the lack of parity between DAs and PDs. Salary equity is only one of the issues. DAs have access to investigators, forensic and other experts (e.g., police, public employees), and other resources that PDs have to pay for out of their office budgets. Establishing workload/caseload limits is significant but that means hiring additional staff, which requires additional state or local funds.

  4. Bill Marshall

    The author is also a presidential candidate (not in the attribution)… trying to build/solidify a “base” locally?   Nah, couldn’t be… no way!

    The concepts have merit, and are worthy of discussion… no question…

    But still, …

      1. Bill Marshall

        “Motivation” and “intent” (not to mention ‘timing’) figure heavily into things, if I recall correctly…  legal and/or political realities, n’est-ce pas?

        Her ‘content’ I truly get and am inclined to support… but the law also has a lot to do with “time… place… manner” as I recall… I see her contribution as ‘political’, which I call her on, rather than a PSA or heartful and rational call to action…  I may be incorrect, but doesn’t ‘sniff’ that way… guess you don’t see it that way… no possibility, right?

        KH might win enough delegates in CA to get the CA vote for the Demo convention… might even get to be the Demo nominee for President… but, elected President?  Extremely unlikely… 4 years (in 2020) to her first term as a Senator from CA?  I can see her as a running mate for someone who could actually win… rather see her represent me in the Senate, for the rest of her term… disagree with some of her positions, but that has been true of Feinstein and Cranston (Boxer is a completely different matter)…

        Like it or not, Demos will need moderate/informed/independent voters to successfully run against Trump.  Reality.  Inconvenient truth.  KH has not moved the football a cm in this piece… might be a loss on the ‘play’…

        This piece did not move the ball forward, as to her aspirations, and leans toward making suspect her contents… actual “boots on the ground reform”… which I strongly lean to support…

        We’ll agree as to disagreeing as to whether she can be effective in actually getting things done.  She belongs in the Senate, where she has a much better chance of getting good, important things done… if she does, I’ll vote for her re-election, as a Senator from my State…


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