Sunday, April 19, 2009

Report: Shortchanging indigent defense budgets diminishes constitutional rights

Dr. Tony Fabelo, one of Texas' leading criminal justice policy experts, emails to let us know about a new report, produced by a national committee on which he participated, arguing to spend new resources to shore up public defender systems and corresponding press coverage on NPR.

The report goes into detail about the wide range of ways public defender systems fail poor defendants. Sometimes people don't get lawyers at all. Other times they get a lawyer who is so overworked and underpaid that there's no way the accused can get a real defense.

When that happens, the system ends up with people like Alan Crotzer, a man who spent 24 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. "I was poor and indigent," said Crotzer. "I didn't have no political connections, but I was innocent. And because of that fault in me, I spent more than half of my life in prison."

Crotzer was released when DNA evidence proved his innocence. He has been out for three years, and he's part of the committee that helped produce the report.

The study includes a list of recommendations to fix public defender systems — for example, each state should have a commission to oversee indigent defense. These steps may not be cheap, and it's a difficult time to convince states to spend money.

[Former federal judge Tim] Lewis argues that there's really no choice. "Even in difficult economic times, how much is a constitutional right worth?" he asked. "What price tag do we place on the right to vote? The right to be free from illegal searches and seizures? This is no different."

RELATED: See coverage from the Stand Down Blog.

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