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.