What might be most interesting about a new watchdog report (.pdf) on indigent defense in California is what isn’t in it.
The Commission on the Fair Administration of Justice did not recommend establishing an oversight committee to set up statewide, basic standards for defending the poor in court. That would seem like a gimme given the commission’s finding that the quality of indigent defense “is far from uniform” across California’s 58 counties. Other states have such committees.
But commissioners said that some public defenders balked at the idea, arguing that if county leaders saw “minimum” standards, they might cut any extra funding above that level. “In today’s budget climate, this is a realistic cause for concern,” the commission’s report concluded.
Instead, the commission recommended that the State Bar revive its own dormant committee on indigent defense so it can “resolve the issues” of what constitutes adequate funding for defending the poor.
The commission also recommended to the Legislature that counties contracting with private firms for indigent defense be required to provide a separate pot of money for investigations, lab fees, expert witnesses, interpreters and other non-lawyer costs. Tying a contractor’s profit to whatever’s left in a single kitty after all bills are paid might encourage the lawyer to skimp on defense costs, the report said.
The Legislature created the commission to study the reasons behind wrongful convictions in California.
— Cheryl Miller