A major story in tomorrow's Enquirer will feature an independent study just completed of Hamilton County's Public Defender's Office. The results? Not pretty, to say the least.
Among a number of problems and issues at numerous levels, the overarching theme is that the State of Ohio has one of the worst systems of providing criminal defense of the indigent in the country, and is still heading in the wrong direction. Even though the state has a constitutional obligation to provide counsel to the poor, the funding provided by the State is paltry (most states provide full or almost full funding), and counties simply don't have the funds through local taxes to make up the difference, and never will. According to the report, the consequences of this funding failure are severe.
We will hold a hearing on this issue and the response of our Public Defender Commission at an upcoming staff meeting (July 28).
Two points to keep in mind on this subject:
1. Pre-trial delays. One issue that came up in the Issue 27 debate was the number of people who take up jailspace awaiting trial, something we all should be concerned about as we deal with overcrowding and overall jailing costs. There is a clear connection between an under-funded public defender system and the costly delays of getting to trial.
2. Lowering recividism. Ideally, a good public defender should be paying attention to the deeper needs of his or her clients. As opposed to simply putting up a legal defense for the short term, an engaged public defender may often be the best person to help a client make the responsible long-term decisions to deal with substance abuse, mental illness, or other causes of criminal behavior. Again, to the extent the system is overburdened and underfunded, public defenders will struggle to play this critical role -- and we lose a great opportunity to reduce the recividism rates of non-violent offenders.
More to come on this issue.