Upon assuming office, Attorney General Eric Holder set out to improve the indigent defense crisis in the country. In March of 2010, he established the Access to Justice Initiative (ATJ) with the goal of improving the justice delivery systems that serve people who are unable to afford counsel in both the civil and criminal contexts. Throughout his tenure, the Attorney General has asked members of his Department to address this crisis in the work they do each day. For example, on June 19, 2010, he told an audience in Wilmington, North Carolina:
Let me assure you … that this is not a passing issue for the Justice Department. I have asked the entire Department to focus on indigent defense issues with a sense of urgency and a commitment to developing and implementing the solutions we need. As many of you know, we recently took an historic step to make access to justice a permanent part of the Department’s work, with a focused effort by our leadership offices to ensure that this issue gets the attention it deserves.
One area ATJ has focused on is increasing awareness among the defender community about existing funding sources. According to a report from the United States Government Accountability Office in May 2012, the Department of Justice administered 13 grant programs from fiscal years 2005 through 2010 that recipients could use to support indigent defense, 4 of which required recipients to use all or part of the funding for that purpose and 9 that did not. Among the 9 grants that did not require allocations for indigent defense, two-thirds or more of state, local, and tribal respondents reported that they did not use funds for it. And, approximately only 54 percent of grantees or public defender offices were even aware that such funding could be used to support indigent defense.
In an attempt to shrink this information gap, in 2013, ATJ, in partnership with the National Criminal Justice Association (NCJA) and the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), co-hosted three webinars about federal grants available to defenders: Strengthening Indigent Defense: Understanding State and Federal Resources; Expanding Stakeholder Involvement: Promoting Inclusive System Planning; and Strengthening Court Systems: Understanding State and Federal Resources. These introductory webinars sought to raise awareness about these grants and to provide viable strategies to ultimately become defender grantees.
The webinars particularly spotlighted the Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant (Byrne JAG) program, administered by the Office of Justice Program’s Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA). With an average of $370 million in appropriations, it is the largest of the Justice Department’s grant programs and is considered the cornerstone of federal support for state and local criminal justice systems. Defenders, however, have not consistently been a part of state and local planning processes for allocating Byrne JAG funds, and funds dedicated to indigent defense constitute only about 3 percent of all criminal justice expenditures in our nation’s largest localities.
This low percentage may be the result of a variety of factors but the defender information gap and lack of involvement of the defender community in the state planning process are chief among them. Not surprisingly, the GAO report found that Byrne JAG funding is more likely to be shared with a broader range of stakeholders if they are included in the planning process. “Specifically, among the 4 percent of JAG grantees who reported that representatives of the indigent defense community were involved in the decision making process, 22 percent reported allocating funding for indigent defense. In contrast, among the 52 percent who reported that representatives of the indigent defense community were not involved in the decision making process, 2 percent reported allocating funding for indigent defense.”
In an effort to engage indigent defense stakeholders in the planning process, BJA added language to the grant solicitation, that its “recommended guidelines are that at a minimum, the strategic planning process includes law enforcement, courts, prosecutors, indigent defense providers, victim advocates, and corrections officials.” The grant solicitation also notes that a “key priority area [for State Administering Agencies to consider when trying to maximize the effectiveness of their funding] is support for indigent defense.”
To further this positive momentum, on May 15, 2014, ATJ once again teamed up with NCJA and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association to host a fourth webinar, that provided a deeper dive into funding strategies for defenders. The webinar, Reframing Public Defense, featured an excellent panel, including Edward C. Monahan, Public Advocate, Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, and Jeff Adachi, Public Defender, San Francisco Public Defender’s Office, who described the work of their offices and the collaborations they have entered into to enhance their competitiveness for local, state, foundation, and federal resources. The webinar is currently available on the NCJA website.