Harris Bill Boosts Pay and Resources, Limits Workload of Public Defenders

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) on Wednesday introduced the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act of 2019. The legislation aims to support public defender systems, which are straining to uphold the constitutional right to counsel for indigent defendants as required by the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark Gideon v. Wainwright decision.

“After spending my career around the criminal justice system, I’ve seen up close how it can fail to ensure that poor defendants receive a fair trial and due process, as guaranteed to all of us in our Constitution,” Harris said. “All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources. This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul. And the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line. It’s wrong, and it’s the opposite of justice.

“I have introduced the EQUAL Defense Act to give public defenders the tools they need to ensure a more effective criminal justice system and to deliver on Gideon’s promise,” she added.

The EQUAL Defense Act is supported by Jon Rapping, president and founder of Gideon’s Promise.

“Public defenders have largely been ignored in the national conversation around criminal justice reform,” Rapping said. “The EQUAL Defense Act of 2019 is a recognition that public defenders must be an important part of our criminal justice reform thinking. I am hopeful that this Act prompts us all to continue to understand public defenders as a critical piece of the criminal justice solution, and to build on its important foundation to ensure marginalized communities have the advocates necessary to fulfill our democratic promise of equal justice.”

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright recognized the constitutional right to counsel to anyone accused of criminal wrongdoing and unable to afford their own attorney. But in today’s criminal justice system, public defenders are too often unable to uphold Gideon’s promise because they lack critical resources.

The EQUAL Defense Act will provide financial support for public defense systems and training programs that aim to improve the delivery of legal services to indigent criminal defendants.

The bill:

  • Creates a new $250 million grant program to fund public defense, including establishing:
    • Workload limits for full-time public defenders.
    • Pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years.
    • Annual data on public defender workloads, including the number of hours worked per month and the percentage of hours worked per month across a range of tasks.
  • Authorizes $5 million for non-profit and government organizations to provide comprehensive training for public defenders.
  • Reauthorizes the student loan repayment program, increases the overall authorization amount from $25 million to $75 million, and increases per borrower repayment limits.
  • Requires Byrne-JAG recipients to provide data about the extent to which the state is providing public defenders to those in need.

The EQUAL Defense Act is supported by Gideon’s Promise, National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), National Association for Public Defense (NAPD), National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), NAACP Legal Defense Fund, Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Lawyers’ Committee for Civil and Human Rights, Color of Change, and Project on Government Oversight (POGO).

For full bill text, click here.

For further background on the bill, click here.

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