A Call for Better Funding of Juvenile Defense

A March 2014 article, Defenders Must Address Underlying Causes of Criminality by Winston A. Peters, president of the California Public Defenders Association, calls for spending more money in public defender offices to increase cost-effective practices within the office and to use collaborative partnerships to address mental health and educational advocacy for juvenile clients as a way of saving money in county, state, and federal budgets.

Public defenders can play a critical role in advocating for diagnostic evaluations and treatment options that can divert children out of the juvenile justice system and/or decrease recidivism.  Elite public defender offices (such as the Bronx Defenders) may have social workers, disposition (sentencing) specialists, and public defenders who specialize in special education and mental health law.  To augment these specialists, partnerships are forged with academic researchers, juvenile service providers, and other advocates to help build a safety net under the child by addressing non-legal needs.  It may be as simple as assisting the family to apply for Medicaid for the child.  It may involve a team of people to address a myriad of rehabilitative goals.

Part of the issue with seeking more resources is that many in the public assume that attorneys are all making six figure salaries in a law office like those featured on shows like The Good Wife, and have all of the latest and greatest gadgets.  Often, this reality could not be farther from the truth.  Government salaries are public record and are usually published annually.  Most full-time public defenders make less than $70,000 per year — and often much less — despite crushing law school debt and other expenses.  Frequently, the public defender office budgets are limited to salary, benefits, and minimal other resources.  It is not unheard of for offices to scrounge for furniture from castoffs when other county departments get replacement furniture.  Laptops, projectors, scanners, FAX machines, and other electronic equipment may be perpetually on the “wish list” or supplied from the personal funds of the defenders.  The same cannot be said for many prosecutors’ offices that have access to grant funds to be used for law enforcement purposes.  In addition, throughout Indiana, many counties use an appointed counsel or contract counsel model of defense with private attorneys shouldering the cost of providing resources, including office space, with no full-time attorneys.

If we, as a society, truly value the ideas espoused in Gault and Gideon, we must do better to fund and supply public defense offices with the needed supplemental resources.  Supporting a system that helps rehabilitate and divert children out of the system can benefit the child and save tax dollars.

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3 Responses to A Call for Better Funding of Juvenile Defense

  1. Kaarin, in reference to these statements, “Laptops, projectors, scanners, FAX machines, and other electronic equipment may be perpetually on the “wish list” or supplied from the personal funds of the defenders. The same cannot be said for the prosecutors’ offices that have access to grant funds to be used for law enforcement purposes.” — The second sentence simply isn’t true. Prosecutor’s budgets are just as strained. Prosecutors generally can apply for two types of grants — victim advocacy and law enforcement. Victim advocacy grants provide funds to pay a victim advocate salary, but nothing more. Law enforcement grants may get some types of equipment, but that equipment either goes directly to the law enforcement agency or is kept at the prosecutor’s office for law enforcement agencies to share. There are no grants to help replace my XP desktop, our broken printer, or my old, stained desk chair. I don’t know of a local government office where these issues aren’t present.

    I agree that PDs need adequate funding for all the purposes you listed, and that most, if not all, are not receiving it. As a prosecutor in delinquency cases, I welcome more information and alternatives in dispositions, and I would love it if defense counsel had more access and information regarding possible alternatives. The entire criminal/juvenile justice system is underfunded, especially with respect to rehabilitative programs, not just the PD’s office. We need to work together, not against one another, to rectify the problems.

    • Kaarin says:

      Kurt — Thanks so much for the thoughtful post. I am not sure how the message from my post was that my post advocated for or would cause prosecutors, public defenders, probation officers, and the judges to not work together. Juvenile court, as you know, is much more collaborative than criminal court, and many courts can be quite collegial and congenial. That is what I hope for in all of our experiences. As to the point about funding, it is a good edit note to suggest that not every prosecutor’s office is the same. Some counties, like ours, have access to funds related to drug busts on the interstate highways that would not be available to counties without an interstate highway. Some counties are more aggressive about applying for grants and other funding streams, others are not. My vantage point is that I just have to walk down the hall to see the disparity between what a county budget allocates versus the ability to augment the county budget by tapping into outside funding sources, and I know that I have heard the same from other public defenders. That does not mean that the prosecutors deserve less. The point of the article and post was that there is a system savings to be had by augmenting public defense resources.

  2. Pingback: A Call for Better Funding of Juvenile Defense | Hoosier Herald

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