A public interest group in which I participate heard some preliminary discussion Tuesday about the possibility of a lawsuit challenging Arkansas’s woeful underfunding of public defenders for people accused of crimes.
Civil rights lawsuits, some involving the ACLU, have been filed in many locations around the country over lack of funding for public defenders, such as in New York, where the federal Justice Department is cooperating The argument is that failure to adequately provide for legal counsel — a constitutional right — violates the rights of people who can’t afford lawyers.
Yesterday, the legislature heard from the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission on a budget request that, though a big increase in funding, would still be far short of providing reasonable caseloads for indigents’ lawyers.
I was reminded again of the importance of Rep. John Walker — the civil rights lawyer so many people love to hate. There was the 77-year-old lion again in Claudia Lauer’s Democrat-Gazette article speaking the unvarnished truth (the same day he was raising hell at a Little Rock School District facilities study meeting and rebuffing Superintendent Dexter Suggs‘ effort to shut him up).
“The executive recommendation [from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe] is just too meager and denies people equal protection under the law,” said Democratic Rep. John Walker, a Little Rock lawyer. “You’re putting more pressure on people to plead guilty, because of having fewer lawyers, or having lawyers who are more strained in terms of the representation burdens that they have. What you’re doing is encouraging those [attorneys] not to pay close attention to people charged with a crime.”
Amen. If the legislature, after years of refusing to do anything much about the shortcoming again falls short, you can be reasonably sure a lawsuit will follow. Will the Arkansas legislature address the shortfall? It seems a long shot. Republican candidates, their party now in the majority, repeatedly demonstrate their fondness for the constitutional right to counsel by smearing people who work as defense lawyers (see Stacy Hurst and David Meeks, cheered on by unethical lawyer Doyle Webb, the GOP chair). Why should they want to pay for them?
Legislators want to lock up everyone arrested and throw away the key without possibility of parole. That kind of talk encourages judges to throw the book at defendants. This stuffs prisons with inmates, who then overflow on local jails, which then release lesser criminals, who then make a perpetual living breaking into homes and cars to finance drug habits.
Pay now or pay later. And pay in unseen ways in the meanwhile. But whatever you do, please cut taxes first.