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GAO Study: Federal Grants Bypass Indigent Defense In Favor of Law Enforcement

A report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) confirms what most criminal defendants too poor to pay for an attorney already assumed: While hundreds of millions in federal tax dollars support prosecutors and law enforcement every year. public defenders are being left in the cold.

Citing a nationwide study of criminal justice funding, the GAO report on indigent defense released in May 2012 says that police and prosecutors are given nearly half of the overall money appropriated by the Byrne Justice Assistance Grant Program (JAG}—the federal government's largest criminal justice subsidy—while less than 1% of JAG funds goes toward defending the poor.

"Despite repeated calls from the legal community for improved funding for indigent defense, and even though Attorney General Holder himself has declared a 'crisis' in the right to counsel for the poor. this study shows that state and local governments continue to give justice for the needy short shrill when they divide up the federal dollars they receive."' said Virginia Sloan. president of The Constitution Project. a legal watchdog..

According to the GAO report the U.S. Department ol Justice distributed more than 52.8 billion in Byrne JAG funds between 2005 and 2010 to state and local governments. But because indigent defense wasn't "prioritized" by Holder until 2010. less than one-tenth of I% of that money sent to municipalities. and just seven-tenths of 1% allocated to states. was spent ensuring criminal defendants' Sixth Amendment rights to effective counsel.

Meanwhile. 54% of JAG funds sent to local governments, and 38% of JAG funds sent to states, was spent on prosecution and law enforcement.

JAG recipients. according to a GAO survey. blame the astounding disparity on competing priorities. and argue that overtime pay for police officers. surveillance equipment. and prosecutors' salaries are more important than indigent defense.

The GAO reports that one JAG administrator explaining that his city was laying off more than 30 police officers, decided to effectively disregard criminal defendants' due-process rights in favor of law enforcement.

"Because there will now be fewer officers on the street to identify, report and respond to crime as it happens." the GAO said, "his jurisdiction gave priority to obtaining technology that would allow citizens to better report crimes as opposed to providing funding for indigent defense."

Public defenders told the GAO that they believe they're underfunded partly because they aren't part of the decision-making process to disperse funds. and because they're often unaware of their eligibility to apply for Rinds.

in its report. the GAO recommends that DOJ's Office for Justice Programs should do more to ensure that JAG funds and other criminal justice grants are allocated for indigent defense. and inform public defenders about grant eligibility.

TCP's Sloan wants more accountability and consequences for grant administrators who fail to divert fluids to defending the poor..

"Most importantly." she said. "the federal government roust tell the states and localities that they will not receive funding unless they distribute it more fairly between law enforcement and indigent defense."

Sources: "Indigent Defense: DOJ Could Increase Awareness of Eligible Funding and Better Determine the Extent to Which Funds Help Support This Purpose," Government Accountability Office, May 2012,



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