State, national groups support Indiana public defense reform

Leaders of state and national criminal justice organizations are declaring their support for the Indiana Public Defender Commission’s reform initiative, which the commission is presenting to the Indiana General Assembly this year in an effort to secure additional funds to expand and improve indigent defense services statewide.

In a letter submitted to House Speaker Brian Bosma, Senate President pro tempore Rod Bray, House Minority Leader Phil GiaQuinta and Senate Minority Leader Tim Lanane on Jan. 22, leaders of the Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, Right on Crime, Due Process Institute, Freedom Works, Prison Fellowship and Americans for Prosperity-Indiana urged the Legislature to support the commission’s 2019-2021 budget requests. Those requests would allocate roughly $40.8 million to the commission per fiscal year in the biennial budget and would include additional funds for the commission’s priorities.

Those priorities, as presented to the House Ways and Means Committee last month, include an increase in the commission’s base funding and additional appropriations for the reimbursement of misdemeanor cases and the creation of a statewide appellate office. The base funding increase would cost the state $4.47 million per fiscal year, while misdemeanor reimbursements would come with an annual $5.7 million and the appellate office would cost $4.9 million annually.

Currently, the commission reimburses member counties — which include those counties that maintain compliance with commission caseload and other standards — 40 percent of the cost of indigent defense services for noncapital cases excluding misdemeanors, and 50 percent for capital cases. By the end of this year, 63 counties will be commission members, and the boost in base funding is needed to enable the commission to reimburse its growing number of members.

Further, the requested $5.7 million would be used to allow the commission to begin reimbursing misdemeanor defense, a change also requiring legislative action via House Bill 1453. As of Jan. 31, HB 1453 had passed out of the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee and was referred to Ways and Means.

In their letter, the leaders of the criminal justice organizations said funding for misdemeanor offenses can help defendants avoid collateral consequences such as fines and the loss of licenses, all of which can impact a defendant’s quality of life.

“Research has shown that the ability to earn a living is the best way to keep someone from committing another crime; however, the excessive barriers confronting those with a criminal conviction make the task of being able to provide for oneself and family nearly impossible,” they wrote. “Ensuring an effective public defense delivery system will decrease the number of people burdened with collateral consequences, resulting in more people remaining contributing members of society.

“As a result, we strongly support efforts to ensure effective and meaningful representation in misdemeanor cases.”

The creation of a statewide public defender appellate office would also strengthen indigent defense, the commission said, by providing counties with access to trained appellate attorneys. Statewide, judges in about one-third of counties reported difficulty finding qualified appellate defenders for indigent defendants.

The creation of an appellate office is also included in HB 1453.

The commission is also asking the Legislature to give county executives the authority to create regional public defender offices. Those offices would allow counties — especially those that are smaller and have limited funds to devote to indigent defense — to share resources.

Allowing for the creation of regional public defense offices would not have a fiscal impact, but it would require a statutory change outlined in Senate Bill 488. As of Jan. 29, SB 488 had unanimously passed the Senate and was referred to the House.

Finally, the commission’s last legislative priority this year would be to change the makeup of the three-member county public defender boards. Currently county judges are permitted to appoint two board members, but the commission is advocating for a statutory change that would reduce judicial appointments to one appointee and would allow the commission to make the other appointment.

The change to county boards is also contained in SB 488.

Like the national organizations, the Indiana Public Defender Council has said it “generally agrees” with the commission’s legislative agenda, believing the priorities, in order, should be misdemeanor reimbursements, creation of an appellate office and creation of regional public defense offices.

However, “(t)he IPDC Board is concerned that the Commission’s legislative/policy reform agenda does not address some of the most egregious defects in Indiana’s criminal system,” a letter from IPDC executive director Bernice Corley says. “Among these being: (1) the lack of representation at first appearance and throughout the life of the case and; (2) the practice of some trial courts directing unrepresented accused to negotiate directly with prosecutors and then accepting guilty pleas without defense counsel.”

The commission has also received the support of the board of the Indiana Judicial Conference, which unanimously voted in December to support the commission’s reform agenda. However, in a letter signed by Indiana Supreme Court Chief Administrative Officer Justin Forkner, the Judicial Conference’s Strategic Committee suggested that local public defense boards be comprised of five members appointed as follows:

• three appointments by local judges, with no more than two appointees from the same political party;

• one appointment by the county commissioners, and;

• one appointment by the Public Defender Commmission.

In a Wednesday press release, members of the commission expressed gratitude for the state and national support for its legislative agenda. That agenda is premised on the work of the Indiana Task Force on Public Defense, created after the Sixth Amendment Center issued a report in 2016 that found several shortcomings in Indiana’s provision of indigent defense services. 

“We are pleased that our efforts are receiving national attention,” commission chair Mark Rutherford said in a statement. “Indiana has been a leader in criminal justice reform efforts, and public defense reform is the logical next step in that process.”

“We are grateful that so many key organizations — national and state-based — are on the same page about the importance of this effort,” commission vice chair and former Public Defender Council executive director Larry Landis added. “A strong public defense system will impact county jail overcrowding, our drug crisis, and ensure the liberty rights of Hoosiers are protected.”

The commission’s legislative and fiscal priorities, as well as the letters of support, can be reviewed here.

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