Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris of California is introducing legislation, including a $250 million grant program, to ease the burden on public defenders around the country.
The legislation, being introduced Wednesday, is the latest foray into criminal justice reform for Harris, a former prosecutor and a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who has said she wants to make the system more just.
According to a summary released by Harris’ Senate office, the proposal would create a grant program that would establish workload limits for full time public defenders, create pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years and collect annual data on public defender workloads. The legislation also would authorize $5 million for government organizations and nonprofits to provide training for public defenders.
“All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources. This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul,” Harris said. “And the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line. It’s wrong, and it’s the opposite of justice.”
Many criminal defendants are too poor to hire a lawyer and instead rely on public defenders or court appointed lawyers. And under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution, all defendants are guaranteed the right to effective assistance of counsel. But across the country, legal defense advocates say public defenders are overwhelmed and may be juggling hundreds of cases simultaneously.
“We really do not have enough time to talk about all of the needs that public defenders have to do the work that communities impacted deserve of their lawyers,” said Jon Rapping, a legal defense advocate and the founder of Gideon’s Promise, a nonprofit that advocates for public defenders.
Last fiscal year, 1 in 4 public defenders in Kansas quit, with many blaming high caseloads and low salaries. After a recent study in neighboring Missouri found that public defenders had two to three times the workload they should to provide adequate defenses, the American Bar Association said that public defenders “are being asked to carry outlandish, excessive workloads that prevent them from adequately representing their clients and making a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel.”
Supporters of the legislation say it’s a much needed step toward ensuring that poor defendants are represented by competent lawyers with enough time to effectively handle their cases. Rapping, who consulted with Harris’ team on the bill, also praised its focus on mentorship and training for public defenders.
“Our criminal justice culture normalizes injustice” he said. “It happens to all of us, even public defenders. Poor people are routinely treated in ways we would never tolerate for our loved ones. Yet, there is often no outrage. It takes ongoing training and mentorship to resist the pressures to become indifferent.”
Jo-Ann Wallace, the president of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, said the legislation would “make a historic investment in our nation’s fundamental promise of equal justice under law.”
“The right to counsel is enshrined in our Constitution, but this means little if the public defenders tasked with protecting due process and ensuring that every person receives a fair trial are denied the time and resources they need to provide effective representation,” she said.