Harris rolls out bill to bolster resources for public defenders

Harris rolls out bill to bolster resources for public defenders
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Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisHundreds of lawyers from nation's oldest African American sorority join effort to fight voter suppression Biden picks up endorsement from progressive climate group 350 Action 3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing MORE (D-Calif.) is moving to bolster public defenders, warning that the strain on the current system creates consequences that get passed down to defendants.

The 2020 White House contender is introducing wide-ranging legislation on Wednesday to increase resources for the court-appointed lawyers, who, Harris says, are currently “overworked” and facing outsize caseloads.

“I've seen up close how it can fail to ensure that poor defendants receive a fair trial and due process, as guaranteed to all of us in our Constitution. All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources. This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul,” Harris said in a statement.


Harris, who is running for her party’s 2020 nomination, added that “the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line. It's wrong, and it's the opposite of justice.”

The legislation, according to bill text obtained by The Hill ahead of its formal release, would create a $250 million grant for public defenders, put caps on workload limits and create parity in pay between public defenders and prosecutors within five years.

The Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwright that everyone has the right to counsel, regardless of their ability to pay, giving rise to public defenders.

But they have faced years of reporting in states across the country about lags in pay. Meanwhile, the American Bar Association argued that the findings of a 2014 study on public defenders in Missouri showed that they were having to “carry outlandish, excessive workloads” and the system was “making a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel recognized by the United States Supreme Court.”

Harris’s legislation would require an annual breakdown on public defender workloads, providing more data to measure the amount of time lawyers are able to dedicate to a range of tasks.

It would also authorize an increase in funding for a student loan repayment program from $25 million to $75 million, authorize $5 million for public defender training and require jurisdictions that receive a top law enforcement grant to provide data on their rate of providing public defenders.

“I have introduced the EQUAL Defense Act to give public defenders the tools they need to ensure a more effective criminal justice system and to deliver on Gideon’s promise,” Harris said.

The legislation is backed by nearly a dozen defense and legal groups, including National Association for Public Defense, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Harris’s bill comes as several 2020 Democratic candidates have offered legislation, or backed ideas, to reform the criminal justice system as they lay out policy goal posts in the party’s crowded primary field.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersThe Hill's Campaign Report: Trump faces backlash after not committing to peaceful transition of power Bernie Sanders: 'This is an election between Donald Trump and democracy' The Hill's 12:30 Report: Trump stokes fears over November election outcome MORE (I-Vt.), for example, has backed giving inmates the right to vote — a stance that earned him heavy criticism from Republicans. Sen. Cory BookerCory Anthony Booker3 reasons why Biden is misreading the politics of court packing Bipartisan praise pours in after Ginsburg's death DHS opens probe into allegations at Georgia ICE facility MORE (D-N.J.) also introduced a bill earlier this year to build off of last year’s bipartisan criminal justice and sentencing reform bill.

Harris — a former prosecutor, district attorney and state attorney general — has faced scrutiny during her presidential run about her work in California, including a 2010 crime lab scandal and a 2004 fight with defense lawyers and San Francisco’s elected public defender, Jeff Adachi, who passed away earlier this year, over bail reforms.

Asked by CNN last month about Harris backing higher bails for gun crimes as district attorney for San Francisco, a spokesman for the senator characterized it trying to prevent individuals who had carried out crimes with guns from being “able to easily endanger city residents.”

"Harris remains firmly committed to curbing gun violence, and her bill to reform the money bail system takes into consideration whether the defendant poses a threat to the safety of the community,” the spokesman added to CNN last month.