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Public Defense Is in Crisis. There’s a Growing Movement to Fix It.

While states work to improve public defense systems, lawmakers must aim for robust reforms and data collection, write Arnold Ventures Director of Criminal Justice Rebecca Silber and Manager of Criminal Justice Julia Durnan in an op-ed for Governing.

In July, Oregon enacted legislation that will overhaul the state’s public defense system. The new law scraps the state’s flat-fee” model, which had contributed to a dire shortage of public defenders and left hundreds of people in jail without representation, among other reforms. 

In a new op-ed published this week in Governing, Arnold Ventures’ Director of Criminal Justice Rebecca Silber and Manager of Criminal Justice Julia Durnan write that the effort in Oregon is part of a wider, growing movement in states across the country to fix public defense systems. 

In its 1963 Gideon decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer are entitled to free representation. Yet even today, in many places public defense systems are underfunded and undervalued,” Silber and Durnan write. However, from Democratic-leaning states like Oregon, through swing states like Pennsylvania and into deep-red states like Mississippi, a national movement is gathering momentum for public defense reform.”

As this movement picks up steam, Silber and Durnan suggest that it should be guided by two important criteria. Firstly, reforms must go beyond simple, small-scale funding increases and address and remedy economic and social inequities. One example of this provided in the op-ed is Michigan, which has undertaken a decade long, relatively successful overhaul of its public defense system.

Secondly, there needs to be a strong focus on data. This includes accurate information on the current state of public defense, and its gaps, along with a process of collecting and analyzing data once reforms are enacted. 

Over the past year, we have seen encouraging signs in states throughout the nation that policymakers from both sides of the aisle are beginning to take the crisis in public defense more seriously,” Silber and Durnan conclude. “[But] much more can and should be done.” 

Read the op-ed here.