Of Counsel

Legal Notes on Georgia and The South

Senate Smashes GPDSC Funding

Posted by Maggie on February 20, 2008

Yesterday the Georgia Senate approved only $513,125 in emergency funds for the Public Defender Standards Council. Governor Perdue recommended $3.6 million and the House voted in favor of that amount. Now the House and Senate will have to figure out a compromise.

The Senate says they think GPDSC has access to more money than they claim and that their assertion that employees will have to be furloughed is an exaggeration. It seems that they’re working at least partially in response to Senator Preston Smith’s oversight committee report. (Sorry I’m weeks late with the link.) They make a valid point: GPDSC has claimed it will have to furlough employees without additional funds for the last two years but no one was ever put on furlough. But I don’t know that it’s a reason to cut back so much.

The report brings up Nichols, which I find unjustified. (It’s no longer possible to have the budgetary problems from Nichols thanks to legislative changes I’ll address in a separate post.) The bigger issue is what’s at stake here. I did find curious one section that said that GPDSC has a big division, with many members taking the more “extreme” views taken by previous directors. It’s not clear what these viewpoints are. Are they financial? Or are they simply passionate about public defense? It’s not like any of this is ever expressed publicly, so it’s unclear what this is based on. (It’s hard to tell, the report is just as critical of “ardent defense advocates” as it is of the Council’s financial issues, which is a severe fundamental flaw.) Another valid point is that the Council is often not transparent in its dealings. Lord knows I’ve said so. The rest of the report is very numbers-driven. A lot of it is about the little details, which money comes from where.

The real issue should be the overall numbers. The report points out that in 2000 the amount spent on indigent defense was approximately $54 million, whereas in 2007 it was about $107 million. Nearly doubled!– they cry. However, they ignore that the cost was rising steadily and severely before the new system went into place. I have managed to get my hands on a letter from a Circuit Public Defender, Sam Merritt (Southwestern Circuit), complaining about this very issue. He notes that the increase between 2000 and 2001 was 13%. The increase between 2001 and 2002 was nearly 17%, and he uses the same numbers cited in the Oversight Committee’s Report. However, since the new system has gone into place, the numbers have stayed shockingly stable. In fact, they decreased about 2% in 2007. So instead of a ballooning system, we have one that’s actually keeping its costs in check. (Especially since the State hates giving it any extra money.)

I’m glad that some of the legislature gets it. Senator Smith doesn’t. In the report’s conclusion, it states:

[T]he new system removes financial considerations from the equation since the state and counties are now obligated to pick up the entire tab, rather than the attorneys. Consequently, these criminal defense attorneys are ethically obligated to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients without any real consideration of limitations related to the cost of that representation. Without any such financial consideration, one can expect that the costs will continue to rise extraordinarily as the expense of the experts and other defense costs increase on the state’s tab.

I’m sorry, but does the Committee have any experience talking to actual PD’s about this? Do they understand that you can’t just decide you want an expert and pay for one like it’s no big deal? Experts are virtually unheard of outside of death penalty cases and the most severe crimes. I wanted one once and couldn’t even move forward without jumping through a huge number of hoops. It ignores the fact that the expenses are not made without consideration. Do they think PD’s operate in a universe where money doesn’t matter? Believe me, they know full well the cost of experts. They’re working with inadequate resources in many situations, though Senator Smith would like us to believe that they’re out there using State credit cards to buy time from fancy experts. They are doing what they need to to get by and sometimes it’s rough to even do that.

The report also uses the phrase “free lawyers,” which is one that I think shows even more of their bias. It doesn’t matter if some members of GPDSC think an “adequate defense” is the “best defense.” Because 99.9% of the people GPDSC defends aren’t getting that best defense because the money just isn’t there. The report is certainly an attack on GPDSC, and they need to be attacked for a lot of things. But it also ignores the practicalities of the PD’s offices all over the state, treating them like they’re cavalier about the State’s finances. (Do they know how much PD’s make? I think they understand the monetary limitations involved in their jobs.)

I will point out one more thing about the Report. It points out at the end other states’ approaches to indigent defense. I think this is something that should be considered. But I also think this attention is overblown. Steps are being taken to put caps on the payment of private counsel. It completely ignores the Conflict Defender’s Offices that GPDSC had in place which likely saved everyone a lot of money by having salaried defenders available specifically to take these cases. And GPDSC may not have furloughed its employees, but it fired its Conflict Defenders and that is something that really should be examined when it comes to the numbers.

2 Responses to “Senate Smashes GPDSC Funding”

  1. […] mean…wtf? It’s not like they’ve got a criminal justice system meltdown on their hands or […]

  2. donzell said

    The report is a lot of political posturing on the behalf of the Senate. I believe that the budget will be approved. What concerns me is what is the political price the GPDSC is going to have to pay to get the money?

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