A new report from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL) found that, when it comes to poverty-stricken defendants, judges have too much control over the fates of those who appear before them.
The study, “Federal Indigent Defense 2015: The Independence Imperative,” was compiled over the course of 18 months. NACDL interviewed 130+ defense attorneys, judges, personnel from the Administrative Office of the United States Courts and others across each federal judicial circuit to evaluate how the system is managing the Sixth Amendment right “to have the assistance of counsel” for defense.
NACDL found that the defense system is managed primarily by judges, rather than the actual attorneys who provide services for the impoverished. The interviews revealed a concern that rather than act as impartial umpires, the current structure of the public defense system gives judges unfettered power to favor the interests of the court over those of the clients. Under the current system, federal judges are responsible for choosing the attorneys who represent defendants, determining staffing levels for defender offices, selecting the people who head those offices, and approving and denying requests for payment and other resources for defense attorneys. Combined, these issues can tip the scales of justice unfavorably for defendants.
The task force made several recommendations aimed at making the system more balanced. They include:
- Insulate the defense from judicial interference. Give defenders the responsibility of making funding and staffing decisions.
- Increase funding to the indigent defense system so that experienced attorneys can be compensated enough to ensure quality representation. Increase budget for experts and investigators.
- Increase the transparency across the entire indigent defense system.