Published on: Monday, March 27, 2023

Gov. Josh Shapiro urged members of the Philadelphia Bar Association on Wednesday to support dedicating $10 million of his $44 billion budget proposal to end Pennsylvania's distinction as being the only state to not provide state-level funding to public defenders (article available here).

In the Sixth Amendment, there’s a line that says in criminal cases, every person has the right to “the assistance of counsel for his defense.” The courts have said states bear the responsibility to ensure adequate defense for their most vulnerable citizens. Forty-nine states have taken that to mean they’re obligated to provide at least some funding to defend people who can’t afford an attorney. Pennsylvania is the one state that has not. It leaves the matter totally up to its counties, and provides no oversight.

Shapiro chose the Philadelphia Bar Association's observance of the 60th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision guaranteeing the right to counsel for criminal defendants, to argue that the current funding system, under which each of the state's 67 counties foot the bill for public defenders, was unfair and that his budget proposal represented a first step in the right direction.

Providing funding on a county-by-county basis, Shapiro said, created a stark disparity between the wealthier and not-so-wealthy counties.

Mifflin County, a rural area between the city of Harrisburg and State College, has the third-highest number of criminal cases handled by a public defender, but the county spends the least per capita on the public defender office's budget — less than $3.25 per person.