Gideon Alert: updates in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania

BY David Carroll on Tuesday, March 16, 2010 at 4:35 PM

WISCONSIN:  Wisconsin's right to counsel system should stand as a model to the rest of the country.  The state funds and administers indigent defense services through a statewide Public Defender System that largely meets the ABA Ten Principles.   However, the system has long had a "dirty little secret."

The financial eligibility threshold had been set so far below the Federal Poverty Guidelines that even a person who was poor enough to qualify for Medicaid coverage or Food Stamps was considered by Wisconsin to be able to afford their own defense.  In fact, a person who earned more than $3,250 per year was not eligible for a court appointed attorney.  Some judges strictly apply the standards; some do not.  This meant that the chance that a client's constitutional right to counsel would apply was entirely dependent upon which courtroom their case was sent to.  As a result, 11,000 people each year were being denied appointed counsel in Wisconsin, who would have received appointed counsel in other states.

On January 14, 2010, the Wisconsin Bar Journal ran an article about a pending bill that gave reason for hope.  As the article points out, Wisconsin has been down the path of trying to cure this deficiency before, only to have Governors veto past legislative efforts to expand eligibility.  We are happy to report that Governor Doyle signed a bill on March 15, 2010 increasing the eligibility guideline to 115% of the Federal Poverty Guideline.  Still too low (states like Louisiana and Nevada have set the limit at 200% of FPG), but a huge step forward nonetheless!

PENNSYLVANIA:  Although the Luzerne County “kids for cash” scandal erupted quite some time ago, you are probably familiar with the story of the two judges federally indicted for taking more than $2.5 million in kickbacks from a private youth detention center in exchange for sending unrepresented juveniles to lock up.  Read here a good CNN story from a year ago explaining what happened.
Though it did not receive as much publicity, part of the reason the judges were able to get away with the scandal for so long was the failing indigent defense system in Pennsylvania.  Pennsylvania is just one of two states that does not contribute a dime of state money to upholding the constitutional right to counsel (Utah is the other).  Though the Defender Association of Philadelphia is considered by many to be a model system, struggling counties far too often choose the least expensive delivery system to provide services without regard to quality.  The ACLU has made progress in both Allegheny County (Pittsburgh) and Venango County (Franklin), but statewide reform is still needed.

Yesterday, the chief public defender in Luzerne County tendered his resignation.  Although much of the hubbub around the Chief Public Defender was about his taking “on call” money from the county while not providing services, at least one County Commissioner questioned his performance in the scandal, noting that the Chief Public Defender claimed his office did not have the time or resources to get involved in the plight of unrepresented kids.  

Please note in the story that a person who has been a chief public defender for more than 30 years and manages an office of 21 attorneys was earning only $52K annually in Luzerne County.