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Indigent Defense Funding in Pennsylvania

Indigent Defense Funding in Pennsylvania

60 of the 66 counties in Pennsylvania with public defenders have criminal attorney staffing levels below current standards.

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In September 2023, the RAND Corporation, in collaboration with the National Center for State Courts (NCSC) and the American Bar Association (ABA), published the National Public Defense Workload Study (NPDWS). This landmark study estimates the minimum time inputs required for public defenders to provide adequate representation that satisfies prevailing constitutional and professional standards in criminal cases. To calculate the implied minimum workload of public defender organizations in each Pennsylvania county, we applied these estimates to a dataset covering over 1 million criminal cases in Pennsylvania filed between 2016 and 2022 . Further, we compared this to actual staffing levels to identify areas with resource shortfalls. Our approach for estimating shortfalls was conservative, i.e. we analyzed the data and chose assumptions that will tend to minimize findings of inadequacy.

Key Findings

  • Statewide, public defenders are experiencing a substantial personnel shortfall. In a typical year, public defenders are assigned cases that would require over 1,200 full-time equivalent (FTE) attorneys to provide adequate representation, but there are only about 850 criminal attorney FTEs currently employed by public defender organizations in the state.

  • Shortfalls are pervasive but not universal—60 of the 66 counties with public defenders (91%) have criminal attorney staffing levels below current standards. However, there are counties that satisfy adequacy standards in varied regions of the state and within different county population categories.

  • For 50 counties (76%), there is no combination of estimates provided by any of the dozens of experts involved in the NPDWS that would allow us to conclude that the county has adequate personnel to handle its public defender’s criminal caseloads. Put differently, no matter which of the 33 different expert estimates from the NPDWS we choose to use, we would always conclude that there is a personnel shortfall in these counties.

  • For the first time in the 2023-2024 fiscal year, Pennsylvania authorized state funding for indigent defense; prior to this year, Pennsylvania was one of only two states that provided no state funding for indigent defense. The shortfalls created by an overwhelmingly local funding model may violate state and federal constitutional guarantees of access to counsel in criminal cases.

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Projected Attorney Shortfalls By County