In 1963 in the landmark case Gideon v. Wainwright, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously ruled that states must provide counsel for criminal defendants who can’t afford their own attorneys. As the court stated, “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him. This seems to us to be an obvious truth.” Gideon recognized that no criminal justice system can operate effectively, fairly and justly where one side enjoys an obvious advantage over the other. In other words, Gideon mandated a level playing field.
In 2017 in Richland County, there is no such level playing field due to the persistent refusal by the Richland County Council to adequately fund the public defender’s office.
For the past five years, the council has refused all requests for increased funding while increasing the solicitor’s budget every year, nearly doubling it since 2010. The solicitor receives $4.3 million while the public defender’s budget is $1.5 million.
Although some defendants hire private attorneys, the vast majority are represented by the public defender. Our office also handles cases that the solicitor does not handle, including probation revocations and matters in summary court. In fiscal year 2015-2016, the solicitor’s office opened 7,970 cases while the public defender opened 8,192. So why should the solicitor’s budget be almost triple the public defender’s? In what world is this fair or just?
The point is not that the solicitor should receive less funding. The point is that you cannot have a just, fair or effective system where one side is placed at such a severe disadvantage and for no apparent reason.
The 2017-18 county budget up for consideration on Tuesday grants yet another increase to the solicitor while yet again denying any additional funding to the public defender.
A budget is the reflection of the values and morals that the government wishes to uphold. The Richland County Council’s budget and resulting treatment of its poorest and most vulnerable citizens is a complete failure of morality. Enough is enough.
Chief Public Defender