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Senate of Pennsylvania
Session of 2021 - 2022 Regular Session


Posted: June 6, 2022 01:59 PM
From: Senator Patrick M. Browne and Sen. Vincent J. Hughes
To: All Senate members
Subject: Indigent Defense Advisory Committee
In the very near future, we intend to introduce legislation that will begin to address indigent defense services within the Commonwealth and relieve Pennsylvania of being the only state not providing funds to help underwrite indigent defense services.

In the United States, few rights are as fundamental as the Sixth Amendment’s guarantee that every person charged with a crime shall have the right to counsel. Without the promise of representation, our system of “innocent until proven guilty” would become a nullity. As the Supreme Court of the United States recognized in Gideon v. Wainwright, a defendant too poor to hire an attorney cannot stand equal before the law without counsel to ensure a fair trial. Gideon and subsequent cases have unequivocally placed the responsibility to provide indigent criminal defense with each state. After fifty-nine years Pennsylvania is the only state that does not appropriate funds to assist counties in complying with the Gideon constitutional mandate. In 2016, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court recognized this constitutional deficiency in Kuren v. Luzerne County and decided that criminal defendants may sue counties for insufficiently funding public defender offices.

In 2003 the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Committee on Racial and Gender Bias reported that the Commonwealth was not fulfilling its obligation to provide adequate, independent defense counsel to indigent defendants. Then in December of 2011 the Joint State Government Commission issued a report similarly concluding that Pennsylvania was not meeting its constitutional mandates under Gideon. Although the Joint State Government Commission report proposed a statewide agency to oversee indigent criminal defense services, we believe our legislation meets the objectives in the report.

The legislation we will be introducing will establish the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee within the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency. The Committee is composed of members of the criminal defense bar, judges, and general assembly appointments. The Committee will propose and submit to the Pennsylvania Supreme Court for adoption minimum standards for the delivery of indigent defense services, and training and experience standards for indigent defense attorneys. Additionally, the Committee will be responsible for the following duties:
  • Establish a virtual defender training library of identified statewide continuing legal education courses, practical training programs, skill development resources, capital case defense training, criminal defense training, juvenile defense training, and management and leadership training.
  • Adopt standards for collecting and reporting data related to the indigent criminal defense services in each county, including public defender caseloads/workloads, conflict counsel caseloads/workloads, and county spending on indigent criminal defense services.
  • Adopt standards for the use of case management systems by county public defender offices.
  • Develop, in partnership with the Administrative Office of Pennsylvania Courts, a data request to better understand the number and status of cases involving indigent defendants.
  • Partner with other departments or agencies for the collection of data related to the delivery of indigent defense services.
  • Analyze data trends and effectiveness of indigent defense services in the Commonwealth.
Our legislation will also establish the Indigent Defense Grant Program, which will be administered by the Commission with funds appropriated during the budget process. The Committee will review and comment on grants to ensure funds are geographically dispersed throughout the Commonwealth. Grants awarded must be consistent with the standards established by the Committee and the standards adopted by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Furthermore, grant money may not supplant existing county spending on indigent criminal defense services.

Not only would funding indigent defense services ensure we are complying with our constitutional mandates and spare counties from lawsuits under the Kuren decision, but it would also help to mitigate against the costs of inadequate criminal defense such as wrongful convictions and excessive sentences.

We hope you will join us and support this important, bipartisan legislation.

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Introduced as SB1317