Judith Miller Writes About Funding Federal Public Defenders

A Defense of Public Defender Funding

As political leaders in Washington, D.C., face a looming deadline to avoid another self-inflicted government shutdown, they would be wise to look around the nation to get a sense of how failing to properly fund the work of federal public defenders would harm the constituents they serve. The harm is far-reaching—affecting the poorest people in Republican- and Democratic-led states and localities, in cities and in rural areas, from the Deep South to the cold North and beyond. Wherever there are people who can’t afford to defend themselves against the government of the United States, they, their families, and their communities face imminent disaster.

One example of a place that stands to lose without proper funding for federal public defense is Oklahoma, where a recent Supreme Court decision, McGirt v. Oklahoma, has flooded the local federal courts with unanticipated new criminal cases. That ruling barred the state of Oklahoma from prosecuting everything from murder to the mundane in historic tribal lands, and so the U.S. government has chosen to do it instead. Much has been made of how this new legal landscape has affected the workload and hiring of federal prosecutors. But failing to adequately fund federal public defenders means that the greatest effects will be felt by the most vulnerable, who will have no options, no forward movement, and no legal assistance when they most need it.

Or perhaps Congress may wish to look to the home state of Senator Jon Ossoff, who has championed the need to create a new public defender office in the Southern District of Georgia. As the New Yorker recently documented, southern Georgia may be the worst place in the country to be poor and charged with a federal crime. There is no federal defender office at all there, and instead attorneys with no experience in federal criminal law are appointed “willy nilly” to represent disadvantaged clients, many of them Black, on all kinds of federal charges. The solution to this problem is obvious—open a federal defender office—but it is hard to imagine doing that at a time when the federal defender budget risks being slashed.

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