Just a few things on the top of the list.
We will be presenting a Bill to the Governor, Congress, and people in Legislature.
*Significantly limit the use of solitary confinement.
*Eliminate the Death Penalty
It is no secret that public defenders nationwide are overworked and underpaid. Recent research—published by the Constitutional Project, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, and the Brennan Center— found that “sometimes the [public] defenders have well over 100 clients at a time… [and] counsel is unable to spend sufficient time on each of their cases.” High caseloads regularly result in severe delays in the judicial process— often prompting guilty pleas from folks who are merely desperate to get home and get back to their lives. Moreover, the reports suggest that “frequently, judges and prosecutors are complicit” in fostering delays as a method for pressuring defendants to plea guilty.
Due primarily to the political popularity of “tough on crime” platforms among legislatures, prosecutors enjoy greater resources, higher pay, and lighter workloads than their public defense counterparts. This creates an unequal situation wherein indigent defendants are represented by counselors that lack the time, money, and energy to adequately defend against well-funded state prosecutors. Over the past five years, annual nationwide spending on public defense is down 4.3 percent. The United States currently spends approximately $2.2 billion annually on indigent defense services. By comparison, annual national prosecutorial funding typically exceeds $6 billion in any given year.
Money can buy a great defense team— but what if a defendant cannot afford privately retained counsel? More than eighty percent of criminal defendants are indigent, and must consequently rely on public defense services.
Public defenders are undoubtedly among the hardest working sect of the legal bar.
However, limited funding and excessive caseloads plague these social justice warriors. In Utah, an experienced public defender will annually handle more than 250 felonies or as many as 1,500 misdemeanor cases. While Florida public defenders routinely handle more than 500 felonies per attorney. Furthermore, Louisiana’s public defense program is so overburdened the attorneys invest an average of only seven minutes per misdemeanor defendant.
All told, according to the US Department of Justice, approximately seventy-three percent of United States public defense offices exceed the maximum recommended caseload.
With declining budgets and crushing caseloads, juggling clients has become a Sisyphean task, public defenders say. In New Orleans, for example, 60 public defenders manage roughly 20,000 cases a year. And overburdened public defenders, they argue, can’t mount a vigorous defense for their clients.
As poor defendants languish in jails awaiting representation that’s months or years away, even some conservatives wonder whether it’s time to change the system.
“If the government can bring charges against you and you’re unable to have someone represent and defend you, that’s the route to totalitarianism. You’re stripped of your rights,”
For decades, New York’s system of money bail resulted in countless instances of unjust pretrial detention. The old law had established a two-tiered system of justice that saw poor individuals detained pretrial for days, months, or even years while the wealthy awaited trial at home. New Yorkers routinely faced high bail amounts, requiring thousands of dollars to remain out of jail even for misdemeanors.
Despite decreasing jail populations in New York City, jail populations outside of the city have increased or remained high due in large part to money bail.
On January 1, 2020, New York eliminated cash bail for most misdemeanors and nonviolent felonies and provided judges with the ability to implement non monetary pretrial conditions for most people at arraignment. Under the new law, fewer lives are upended by an unjust system while community safety is supported and enhanced.
Prior to January 1, 2020, New York prosecutors could withhold key evidence from the defense until the night before trial. Furthermore, prosecutors were not required to turn over any evidence to the defense in advance of an individual entering a plea agreement.
Under these practices, individuals facing criminal charges, and their legal representatives, were unable to prepare successful defenses. And it is well established that this “blindfold” over the defense has resulted in wrongful convictions. Additionally, the lack of discovery has played a significant role in rendering the sacrosanct right to trial irrelevant in New York: Over 95% of New York criminal court dispositions come not through a constitutionally guaranteed jury trial, but from a plea deals made without the benefit of good information.
Recently, New York has implemented new discovery laws that require prosecution to present the defense with evidence in a timely and efficient manner. These critical changes will help protect people from wrongful convictions, ensure actual criminal actors are held accountable instead of the innocent, and make our justice system stronger.
Virginia funds its prosecutors, called commonwealth’s attorneys and often known as district attorneys in other states, based on the number of convictions they secure in a year. The more people a prosecutor charges with a felony and the more sentences they secure, the more state money their office receives.
The funding formula itself is developed from recommendations provided by the Virginia Association of Commonwealth’s Attorneys (VACA), a prosecutorial interest group, before being approved by the Compensation Board.
The formula creates a perverse set of incentives. Focusing solely on convicting someone of a felony—and ignoring whether the allegation is true, whether that conviction will build public safety, or whether the action is fair and just—brings more state money into a prosecutor’s office. On the other hand, if a prosecutor exercises discretion in how they charge cases and builds programs that offer public safety solutions beyond prosecution and jail, they lose out on millions of dollars in state funding.
Overcharging. Because prosecutors only get state funds for prosecuting felonies—and not misdemeanors—they are encouraged to elevate misdemeanor allegations to felonies before eventually pleading them down. “Let’s say somebody comes in and makes an arrest, and I’m looking at it. I’m like, ‘this is a misdemeanor all day. . . .’ I don’t get anything for that [from the Compensation Board],” Descano explained. “But there are some jurisdictions that go, ‘You know, you’re going to get your misdemeanor, but I’m going to indict it as a felony, so it goes up to circuit court and at least I get credit for having a felony defendant.’”