With the shrinking budgets of most state and local governments, the prosecution and defense functions in the courtrooms are threatened. Across the country, most prosecutors are funded by the local counties, while public defenders are increasingly funded by the states. Both functions are jeopardized.
At first, it seems obvious we need to support the prosecution function. After all, if the police arrest suspects and there aren’t enough prosecutors to handle the new cases, it means some criminals will slip through the cracks caused by the over-burdened prosecutors. I’ve never heard anyone suggest our communities get “soft on crime,” or cut-back on the effort to catch and punish criminals. With local budgets stretched tight, many counties are reducing the amount of money they devote to the prosecutor’s office–a bad idea.
At the same time, I’ve often heard the sentiment that criminals should be “locked up and the keys thrown away.” That make it harder to consider funding the defense function equally with the prosecution. What politician wants to be on record as giving more money to the defense so that they can help “get more criminals off?”
The argument about not funding the defense function as much as the prosecution forgets a couple things: of all the people accused of crimes, there are always a few who are…innocent. If we don’t continue to fund a defense function that offers equal skill as the prosecution function, we as a community run the risk of more innocent people going to prison. Or as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “When you do it to the least of the population, you do it to all of the population.” If we short-change the vigorous defense of even the least of the criminals, we short-change our entire criminal justice system. If we continue to do so, who will get equal justice? Only those with enough money to hire their own lawyers. All other Public Defender clients will suffer, as will our system of justice.
After working for years on both sides, prosecution and public defense, I can also tell you that without good public defenders the system will suffer in a more subtle, practical way.
Defense lawyers are the parts of the criminal justice system that “make the wheels turn.” Not the judges, police, prosecutors, or probation officers. Well trained lawyers in a public defender office know how the court system works and are often the best criminal defense lawyers. That also means they can make the system work more efficiently and quickly–without compromising their client’s rights.
In the long run, that saves the taxpayers a lot of money.
Across the country, there’s talk of cutting-back on the public defender funding–I know I’m biased, but for these reasons, it’s a bad idea.