Friday, March 04, 2005

Poor Public Defenders

From The Indpls Star>

Today's Editorial
Justice for all includes the poor

March 4, 2005

Our position is: Indiana must institute a more equitable system for providing legal assistance to indigents.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that poor defendants deserve a lawyer, regardless of whether they can afford one. Yet, 40 years later many indigents aren't receiving adequate representation in an overburdened judicial system.

An American Bar Association study released last month determined that poor defendants aren't much better off than they were in '63. Worse, the study ranks Indiana among the bottom five states in giving legal assistance to the poor.

Thousands of indigents still appear in court without a lawyer, while others are stuck with attorneys who are unable or unwilling to dedicate enough time and resources to their cause.

The report, co-authored by Indiana University Law School Dean Emeritus Norman Lefstein, declared the situation a crisis. It ranked Indiana 46th among the 50 states in providing defense attorneys to indigent suspects.

"We have a significant problem delivering high-quality legal representation to indigents in this state," said Larry Landis, director of the Indiana Public Defenders Council.

The study also criticized the justice system for having too many inexperienced and underpaid public defenders. Many have heavy caseloads. They show up a few minutes before court begins, only to urge their clients to sign plea deals, regardless of whether they're guilty or not.

"All too often, defendants plead guilty, even if they are innocent, without really understanding their legal rights or what is occurring," the report states.

Indiana has allocated only $9 million to pay for defending indigents this year. By contrast, trial judges' salaries cost the state $41 million and the salaries of prosecutors and chief deputy prosecutors run $17 million. The discrepancy smacks of unfairness. Also unfair is a system used in 39 counties by which judges hire lawyers on private contract to represent indigents. That method doesn't allow the defense sufficient independence from judges as a guarantee that indigents will get fair representation.

The General Assembly must fix the inequities by finding more money to provide legal help for indigents.


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