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Pa. begins funding criminal defense for those who cannot afford an attorney

  • Ben Wasserstein/WITF


The right to legal defense is enshrined in the Constitution but until last week, Pennsylvania was one of two states to not fund it on the state level.

Previously, public defenders were paid by counties, leading to discrepancies across the state. This year’s budget earmarked $7.5 million to expand resources to public defenders.

“This is historic,” said Sara Jacobson, executive director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania. “It’s a historic investment in indigent defense and public defense in Pennsylvania.”

Jacobson was a public defender in Philadelphia and Berks counties. Her group represents public defenders across the state.

Some counties are severely understaffed and under-resourced, leading to one full-time defender taking upward of 600 cases at any given time, Jacobson said.

More still needs to be done for public defense in Pennsylvania, Jacobson said.

This includes funding social workers who often help address the problems that lead to crime, keeping someone out of the court system altogether.

“The criminal justice system all too often becomes the last social safety net,” Jacobson said. “People who have drug addictions, people who have mental illness, people who are victims to generational poverty, the place to deal with those societal problems isn’t prison”

A study of the Bronx by the Rand Corporation found that providing indigent clients with holistic defense – a defense team consisting of lawyers and support staff such as social workers – saved New York taxpayers $160 million due to fewer people being incarcerated.

Since 1989, 128 wrongfully convicted people were exonerated in Pennsylvania. A Vanderbilt study found the average cost of a wrongful conviction is around $6.1 million.

This means it cost taxpayers $780 million to keep those people imprisoned.

On top of that, Jacobson said, public defenders should be paid on par to prosecutors.

Lt. Gov. Austin Davis, who also serves as the chair of the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, celebrated the funding in a release.

“Everyone deserves fair and equal treatment in the justice system, and if someone is unable to afford legal defense, that can lessen their chances of receiving that,” he said.

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