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June 01, 2016

Ad hoc committee completes hearings on CJA Program

The Judicial Conference’s Ad Hoc Committee to Review the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) Program wrapped up more than 100 hours of public testimony in seven cities earlier this month and will spend the next several months drafting recommendations for a report that is expected to be issued in April 2017.

The CJA, enacted in 1964, created a broad system for appointing and compensating attorneys to represent indigent individuals in federal cases and was amended in 1970 to create federal defender offices as a counterpart to U.S attorney offices. Today, there are 81 federal defender organizations in the United States with more than 3,100 lawyers, investigators, paralegals and support personnel who provide defense services for 91 of the 94 federal judicial districts.

The wide array of issues covered during the hearings included administration of the defender system by judges, the adequacy of attorney compensation, billing and voucher review, diversity efforts, and the quality of CJA representation.

ABA President Paulette Brown, in a May 11 statement to the ad hoc committee, said that while the CJA has established a system to better serve our country’s indigent defendants and to compensate attorneys who offer their services to indigent clients, there is still work to be done.

Brown highlighted the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System, recalling that former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. said the principles have “not only given shape to our aspirations, but quite literally set the standard, and developed a framework, for progress.” She focused on three of the principles in her statement.

     • Principle 1 (independence).  The current system often forces judges to engage in decisions, including funding and payment of defense counsel, that would be better left to an independent agency to ensure that defender systems are immune from political forces often present in the judiciary.

     • Principle 8 (parity of resources).  Prosecutors and defenders should have parity of resources, including similar salaries, workload and access to trial resources. An attorney’s ability to mount an adequate defense should not be dependent on the defendant’s ability to pay for experts or investigators.

     •  Principle 6 (training). Defense counsel should be provided with quality continuing education courses, and public defenders and panel attorneys should also have access to high-quality trial advocacy training similar to the training provided to federal prosecutors at the National Advocacy Center operated by the U.S. Department of Justice.

“Effective representation is the foundation on which a fair and equal administration of justice rests,” Brown said. “If a system does not meet the Ten Principles, it is bound to fail its clients,” she added. Brown pointed out that indigent defense systems across the country have long been understaffed, underfunded, and poorly trained, and she expressed hope that “an understanding of the failings of our justice system will help to shape its future.”

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