- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - A Pennsylvania state senator said the chamber took a first step Tuesday toward trying to change Pennsylvania’s status as the only state government that has never helped the poor get lawyers to defend them in criminal cases.

The Senate Judiciary Committee approved Sen. Stewart Greenleaf’s bill, 8-6, to create the Pennsylvania Center for Effective Indigent Defense Legal Representation. The bill would give the center $1 million to train and educate public defenders, and make it an independent state agency that can become affiliated with a law school in Pennsylvania.

“We’re not providing a situation in which someone will receive a fair trial and it’s in violation of Gideon v. Wainwright,” Greenleaf said, referring to a unanimous 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

That court declared that states must provide defendants with lawyers to ensure a fair trial for the accused. The Pennsylvania Bar Association and American Civil Liberties Union support the bill.

For now, the state delegates the responsibility of paying for public defenders to counties.

“That’s not how the other 49 states are doing it,” Greenleaf said.

A better funded system of public defenders also would save the state money when inadequately defended cases are overturned by appellate courts and sent back for a retrial, Greenleaf said.

In testimony submitted to the Judiciary Committee last week, the Pennsylvania Bar Association’s president, Forest Myers, said equal access to justice is crucial for a well-functioning civil society, and that the very basis of justice is called into question if the poor do not have effective legal representation.

“The indigent defense system, however, is not working well,” Myers said.

He cited earlier reports by the Joint State Government Commission and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court, saying public defenders lack accountability and political independence from county commissioners. In addition, public defender pay is too low to encourage specialization, and resources are too little to hire enough paralegals and investigators, Myers said.