Criminal Justice Section  


Criminal Justice Magazine
Summer 2001
Volume 16, Issue 2

Indigent Defense

Terry Brooks and Shubhangi Deoras

State Commissions Project in Review

Since August 1999, the ABA and the U.S. Department of Justice have joined forces through the State Commissions Project to assist the following eight states in improving indigent defense systems: Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Nevada, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, and Vermont. As the State Commissions Project nears the end of its second year, the following is a brief look back at the remarkable progress that has been made by the task forces and study commissions in these states, aided by The Spangenberg Group in its capacity as consultant for the State Commissions Project.

Hopefully, the notable gains that have been achieved over the past two years, with the support of the U.S. Department of Justice through the State Commissions Project, will serve to pave the way for continued improvements in the indigent defense systems of these and other states.


Indigent defense services in Alabama are funded by a combination of state funding and court filing fees. In April 2000, Chief Justice Perry O. Hooper, Sr., of the Alabama Supreme Court appointed a special committee to study the state's system for providing defense services and make recommendations for improvements with respect to quality and cost-effectiveness. With assistance from The Spangen-berg Group, the special committee completed drafting legislation in November 2000, providing for the creation of a statewide indigent defense commission responsible for: (1) enhanced oversight of the indigent defense system; (2) improving the quality of representation and ensuring the independence of counsel; (3) establishing uniform policies and procedures for the delivery of services; (4) generating reliable statistical information on services provided and funds expended; and (5) ensuring the efficient and cost-effective delivery of defense services without sacrificing quality representation. On March 15, 2001, the draft legislation was introduced in the Alabama State Legislature as Senate Bill 433.


Most of the funding for indigent defense services in Georgia comes from the counties, although state funding is available to counties meeting the operational standards set by the Georgia Indigent Defense Council (GIDC). In January 2000, the Georgia State Bar passed a resolution calling for the creation of a state commission to study the state's current indigent defense system and recommend changes to improve the system. By December 2000, Chief Justice Robert Benham of the Georgia Supreme Court appointed all members to the State Commission on Indigent Defense, including judges, law school representatives, state senators, state representatives, private attorneys, and a GIDC representative. The commission met with The Spangenberg Group in January and March 2001 to discuss indigent defense systems in comparison states.


All 102 counties in Illinois are responsible for funding indigent services at the trial level. In 1999, the Illinois General Assembly established the Task Force on Professional Practice in Illinois Justice Systems to study appropriate caseload levels, adequate salary structures, annual training needs, technological needs, and other issues affecting Illinois public defenders and prosecutors. On May 12, 2000, the task force issued a report that found the Illinois criminal and juvenile justice systems to be in a state of crisis and recommended that the state and counties develop a partnership to fund indigent defense services. Subsequently, the task force, with assistance from the State Commissions Project, recommended to legislators that this partnership take the form of tying state funding to compliance by counties with national caseload standards and the principle of resource parity between the prosecution and defense functions. In March 2001, legislation was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly to provide limited state funding to offset county expenditures for public defender salaries.


The counties in Nevada bear the brunt of funding indigent defense services, as only a small portion of total expenditures are reimbursed by the state. In spring 2000, The Spangenberg Group (through the State Commissions Project) conducted a statewide study of Nevada's indigent defense system for a Nevada Supreme Court committee that was formed to eliminate racial, economic, and gender bias in the justice system. The resulting report was released in January 2001 and details serious problems with the current provision of indigent defense services. Additionally, the report makes the following recommendations: (1) the state should relieve more of the counties' obligation to fund indigent defense services; (2) the state should establish an indigent defense commission to oversee the delivery of services and promulgate effective minimum standards; (3) indigent defense programs throughout the state should make better use of law school resources, and (4) the state should establish a plan for conducting regular performance evaluations of indigent defense service providers.

North Carolina

The state provides all funding for indigent defense services in North Carolina. In 1999, the North Carolina General Assembly created a study commission to explore methods for improving management and accountability in the expenditure of state funds allocated for indigent defense without compromising the quality of legal representation provided to indigent defendants. With assistance from the State Commissions Project and the Institute of Government at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, the legislative study commission recommended creating a permanent, statewide indigent defense commission housed within, yet independent from, the judicial branch of state government. In July 2000, the general assembly enacted legislation that created a Commission on Indigent Defense Services with broad authority over the delivery of indigent defense services in North Carolina. The commission's chief responsibility is to develop and improve the programs through which an independent Office of Indigent Defense Services provides legal representation to indigent defendants throughout the state. The commission met for the first time in January 2001 to devise a work plan for the coming year.


Indigent defense services are funded entirely by the state. In 1999, the Oregon State Legislature established a study commission to examine the current state of indigent defense services and recommend improvements to be made in the delivery of these services. With limited help from the State Commissions Project, the legislative study commission drafted and recently filed legislation to create an independent state commission, located within the judicial branch of the state government, to oversee the provision of indigent defense services throughout the state. If the legislation passes, members of the proposed Oregon Public Defense Services Commission will be appointed by the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court before July 1, 2002.


All 254 counties in Texas are primarily responsible for providing indigent defense services, and the vast majority of the counties employ an assigned counsel system. In late 1999, a nonprofit, nonpartisan law center, called Texas Appleseed, began to initiate a multiphase project to educate the public and build a strong coalition to improve the Texas indigent defense system. Through the State Commissions Project, The Spangenberg Group conducted and collected statewide data for Texas Appleseed. In December 2000, Texas Appleseed released a comprehensive report containing the recommendations of the experts and researchers who worked on the project. One of the many recommendations in this report called for the legislature to establish and appropriate sufficient funds for a statewide indigent defense oversight entity. In February 2001, The Spangenberg Group worked with Texas Appleseed on drafting legislation and a proposed budget for a statewide indigent defense commission. In April 2001, the Texas Senate unanimously passed legislation to create a Texas Indigent Defense Commission authorized to reimburse the indigent defense expenditures of counties complying with standards set by the commission.


Indigent defense services are funded by the state in Vermont, and the state's defender general is responsible for establishing indigent defense systems in each county. In March 2000, a Task Force on Indigent Defense was appointed by the governor, including retired judges, former public defenders, and state bar representatives. Aided by the State Commissions Project, the task force found that, although the primary defender system in Vermont provides quality representation, the conflict system contains structural flaws and the qualifications of assigned counsel throughout the state fall short of national minimum standards. In January 2001, the task force voted to recommend to the governor the creation of a conflict director position within the Defender General's Office to oversee the provision of indigent defense services in cases in which the primary public defender has a conflict. In addition, the task force will recommend to the governor that minimum qualification standards be adopted for indigent defense service providers and the defender general's training budget be increased to allow for continuing legal education.

Terry Brooks is staff counsel for the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. He is also a contributing editor to Criminal Justice magazine. Shubhangi Deoras is assistant committee counsel.

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