On Wednesday, Attorney General Eric Holder has announced $6.7 million in grants for indigent legal defense service across the nation, according to the DoJ. Grants from the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) will go toward state and local civil and criminal legal services.
“In recent years, the Department of Justice has made a commitment to improving the delivery, quality and availability of legal services for everyone in our country, including the very poor,” Holder said. “Today’s significant grant awards will help ensure America’s criminal justice system is fair for every defendant, regardless of wealth.”
An unfortunate result of the Supreme Court’s 1963 ruling that states are obligated to provide legal defense for criminal defendant who are too poor to afford one, has been that public defenders are often juggling overwhelming case loads.
Public defenders across the country have been struggling with budget cuts and heavy workloads. Sometimes attorneys may be forced to handle as many as hundreds of cases at one time, giving them very little time to devote to each case. “Many people are arrested, processed and plead before they see a defender at all,” Thomas Giovanni, a former public defender, said last month.
Last month, an “unprecedented” court filing from the DoJ gave public defenders cause for optimism. The DoJ was set to weigh in on a case about the quality of indigent legal defense in two cities near Seattle. The plaintiffs in the case alleged that the citites only had two part-time public defenders, who were overseeing 2,000 cases.
The $6.7 million in grants, along with other efforts to strengthen indigent defense “will fortify our public defender system and help us to meet our constitutional and moral obligation to administer a justice system that matched its demand for accountability with a commitment to fair, due process for poor defendants,” according to Associate Attorney General Tony West.
The Justice Department has committed to ongoing efforts to improve indigent legal defense including supporting training, mentoring, technical aid, leadership development, and research. The grants are intended to promote cost-effective innovations in the field of indigent defense.
They are provided by the OJP’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).