Thursday, February 23, 2012

Protect Indigent Defense Funding

Indigent defense is never a popular topic with lawmakers or the public. The concept of the government paying to help criminals go free runs contrary to conservative values. However, indigent defense is closely aligned with the most essential of conservative values: liberty and the regulation of government power.

The criminal justice system in the United States is the best anywhere. When our government chooses to accuse a person of a crime and restrict his or her liberty, there is a process the government must follow. Citizens, in the form of a jury, make the decision. While the government is represented by a lawyer to present its case, the accused is also represented a lawyer to challenge the government. When the two sides are matched, ultimately what the jury hears is the truth.

Yet many in this country are unable to afford to hire a lawyer or prepare a defense. Crime, for the most part, mainly affects the poorer members of our society. A society where liberty and justice is only available to those who can afford it runs contrary to core conservative values. It is why the effective assistance of counsel is guaranteed to all under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution ever since Gideon v. Wainwright.

Our system is designed to protect its citizens from an overzealous government. If government is able to run roughshod over the poorest and weakest members of society, our society cannot be free. The men and women who work in the public defenders office and represent indigent persons accused of crimes act as a check and balance to government power on a daily basis.

However, indigent defense comes at a significant cost to the government. In this day and age of government cutbacks, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council must struggle like every other government agency for funding.

In 2004, the General Assembly created the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council to ensure effective counsel for the poor. In order to fund this constitutional mandate, the Legislature also imposed an additional $15 charge on civil court filing fees. While these fees have generated between $41 million and $44 million annually, the state has only budgeted between $35 million to $38 million for indigent defense. This year, Gov. Nathan Deal has proposed a budget of $40 million for indigent defense. There is no guarantee that this level of funding will continue in future administrations.

Rep. Rich Golick (R-Smyrna), chairman of the House Judiciary Non-Civil Committee, has proposed a constitutional amendment to ensure funding for indigent defense. HR 977 provides that the funds that collected from the civil filing fee add-on be used to support indigent defense and not other budget items. This resolution has made it out of committee and is going to the floor of the General Assembly. A two-thirds majority is required to approve a constitutional amendment and send it to the general public for a vote. All those who support liberty and justice for all should contact their representative to support this important amendment
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