Funding For Indigent Criminal Defense In South Carolina Plummets
One of the hallmarks of the American legal system is the fact that all citizens are entitled to a lawyer for their legal defense if they have been charged with a serious crime. Citizens who want to hire a specific criminal defense lawyer are free to choose their own counsel, but those who cannot are assigned a public defender. This basic principle ensures that anyone who faces denial of liberty and other penalties due to criminal accusations will receive advocacy and advice about their rights and options from a licensed professional.
But South Carolina legislators recently reduced funding to the state's Indigent Defense Commission by nearly 20 percent as part of widespread budget slashing. The commission will receive $8.4 million this year, down from $10.3 million, putting additional pressure on beleaguered public defenders.
Meanwhile, government records reveal that South Carolina taxpayers paid more than $17 million to private law firms to represent government agencies in 2009, a significant rise from the $15.6 million paid in 2008. "I think it is fiscally irresponsible," the president of the South Carolina Association of Justice told The Greenville News. "I think it's certainly a ripe subject to look at and investigate."
Two non-criminal legal aid programs will be eliminated due to the cuts: family law representation (such as parental rights proceedings) and handling post-conviction civil petitions for convicted criminals (otherwise known as habeas corpus appeals). One aspect of the discrepancy in state spending on legal services may surprise many citizens: criminal defense lawyers are paid as little as $40 per hour to represent indigent clients, with a maximum of $75 per hour in a capital felony case involving the death penalty. But attorneys hired to represent state and local government entities can receive as much as $150 per hour in taxpayer funds.
Fighting to Protect a Client's Constitutional Rights
Reductions in funding for criminal defense of citizens who are not able to afford private counsel does not make the right to an attorney go away. The state must still provide representation, and it does so by increasing the workload on its dwindling staff of attorneys. Average caseloads have skyrocketed to 400 for trial lawyers, and eight appellate attorneys are currently responsible for 1600 active appeals.
Some commentators point out that insufficient funding breeds a vicious cycle: high caseloads lead to court delays and increase the potential for error, which in turn elevates the rate of appeals. One South Carolina legislator pointed out that these funding priorities make no sense.
The Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution clearly provides a right to the "assistance of counsel" for the accused "in all criminal prosecutions." And any responsible criminal defense lawyer understands the importance of being able to provide diligent representation to make sure that the law is properly applied.