Posted Feb 04, 2012 11:24 pm CST
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder today announced two new Justice Department programs aimed at helping to bolster indigent defense services at the state and local levels.
Between them, the two programs will make up to $2.4 million in federal funding available to research projects studying the barriers that prevent criminal defendants from receiving effective legal assistance, and to support direct efforts to break down those barriers.
“These initiatives represent an unprecedented level of support—from this Justice Department and from the administration as a whole—for reforming America’s legal system, and improving its ability to serve those who find quality representation to be out of reach,” said Holder in a luncheon speech at the Seventh Annual Summit on Indigent Defense Improvement presented by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants. The summit was held in New Orleans during the ABA’s 2012 Midyear Meeting.
Holder announced that the National Institute of Justice, a part of the Office of Justice Programs, will begin officially soliciting applications within the next few weeks for grants to support research on fundamental issues of access to legal services, including the need for quality representation, at the state and local levels. He said the institute will commit up to $1 million to support these grants.
Holder also said that, later this spring, the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance will solicit applications from state and local jurisdictions for grants that would support on-the-ground efforts to help assure that defendants have access to counsel at the earliest stages of criminal proceedings; provide support for members of the private bar in representing indigent defendants; reduce caseloads; and support oversight of public defender and assigned counsel systems. Up to $1.4 million will be dedicated to this grant program.
These grants come at a time of crisis for indigent criminal defense services, Holder said. In the face of current economic pressures on government budgets, “the obstacles we face have been brought into stark focus,” he said. “Across the country, public defender offices and other indigent defense providers are underfunded and understaffed. Too often, when legal representation is available to the poor, it’s rendered less effective by insufficient resources, overwhelming caseloads and inadequate oversight.”
Holder praised the efforts of the ABA and other groups, including the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers to improve indigent criminal defense services. He cited the work of a focus group (PDF) representing key players in the system to identify key steps the Justice Department can take to help improve prospects for indigent defense reform. That project was funded by another grant from the Justice Department.
He also noted the Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System (PDF) developed a decade ago by the ABA to help guide improvements to state and local systems.
“Fortunately,” Holder said, “the American Bar Association has responded to this crisis not with despair, but with dedication, optimism, and a plan of action.”
Justice Department (prepared remarks): “Attorney General Eric Holder Speaks at the American Bar Association’s National Summit on Indigent Defense”