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Van Hollen Testifies in Support of Legislation that Addresses Indigency Standards for Public Defender Representation

 

MADISON - Attorney General Van Hollen testified this morning in support of legislation that would change indigency standards for public defender representation, saving taxpayer money and providing more uniform representation to indigent criminal defendants.

 

"By changing the indigency standards, fewer taxpayer dollars will be spent providing representation and one unfunded mandate on local governments will be removed," explained Van Hollen. "While finding efficiencies in the criminal justice system is important, this bill's value goes beyond savings.  The bill would also promote statewide uniformity and allow more defendants to access the quality representation that state public defenders provide." 

Van Hollen's written testimony is reproduced below:

 

Joint Committee Hearing of the Assembly Committee on Judiciary and Ethics and the Senate Committee on Judiciary, Corrections, Insurance, Campaign Finance Reform and Housing

 

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

 

Thank you Madame Chair Taylor, Chairman Hebl, and members of the Senate and Assembly Committees on the Judiciary.

 

I appreciate the opportunity to appear before you today in favor of Assembly Bill 395 and Senate Bill 263.  For many years, I have stated that the understaffing of Assistant Public Defenders and the high level of the indigency standards were a public safety and financial detriment to the people of Wisconsin.  In addition, during my County Law Enforcement Roundtables, many of which you helped me host and participated in, the inefficiency, cost and other troubles with the current indigency standards were the topic of conversation in many counties.

 

There is no greater priority in our state than our public safety. Safe homes, communities, and neighborhoods are the places that make everything else possible, and without which, individual and social failure become more predictable.  My views on the priority of public safety, law enforcement, and the criminal justice system are not new and are certainly well known to everyone here. 

 

While public safety is the goal, the criminal justice system is the process by which we try to achieve that goal fairly. 

 

Good law enforcement results in solved or prevented crimes and hopefully less victimization.  It also results in arrests of accused individuals who are entitled to two fundamental things to secure fair justice:  to be considered innocent until proven guilty; and, to have the benefit of defense counsel. 

Unquestionably, public defenders play a key role in operating a fair criminal justice system that seeks justice for all.  They usually play that role more efficiently and more competently than private bar appointments.

 

Put in simple terms, the right to counsel means that if a defendant cannot afford counsel, the defendant is provided counsel by the state.  Wisconsin provides accused defendants with counsel through the State Public Defender -- but only if the defendant meets current law's indigency requirements.  But in cases where a defendant has a right to counsel yet does not meet these indigency requirements, the court must still appoint an attorney, paid for by the county in which the court sits.  This appointed attorney usually receives a higher hourly rate and is less experienced in the practice of that type of law, often resulting in poorer representation and more hours spent on the case. 

 

Thus, under current law, many defendants have a right to counsel but do not have a right to a public defender.  And when this happens, it is the county treasury that pays the bill.  The State Public Defender estimates it costs counties about $6 million annually to appoint these lawyers about $2 million more than the estimated annual cost of this bill.  By changing the indigency standards, fewer taxpayer dollars will be spent providing representation and one unfunded mandate on local governments will be removed.

 

While finding efficiencies in the criminal justice system is important, this bill's value goes beyond savings.  The bill would also promote statewide uniformity and allow more defendants to access the quality representation that state public defenders provide.  I speak as Attorney General and a former assistant public defender and prosecutor when I say that effective assistance of counsel not only helps secure the defendants rights and protects the innocent, but it also helps the court and helps the state both at trial and during the appellate process secure appropriate convictions and seek and impose appropriate sentences. 

 

This bill demonstrates that there is a growing appreciation in the policymaking community of conditions we've acknowledged for some time in the criminal justice community adequately staffing and adequately funding the criminal justice system enhances the fairness of the criminal justice system and the reliability of outcomes.  Today's bills are a step in the right direction.  The next steps are providing adequate resources for our state prosecutors and our Public Defender.  Fully staffing prosecutors and Public Defender offices will also improve the performance of the criminal justice system in a way that will result in increased efficiency and fairness.      

 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify today.