Pennsylvania Makes Historic Move Towards Equal Justice with Indigent Defense Funding

Senator Vincent HughesImage via Pennsylvania Senate Democrats

PHILADELPHIA, PA — Senator Hughes, alongside fellow lawmakers and legal leaders, held a press conference on Friday to highlight the establishment of a new Indigent Defense Advisory Committee. The committee, launched through bipartisan legislation Senate Bill 371, co-sponsored by Senator Hughes and Senator Lisa Baker, marks a significant step towards equal justice in the state.

Senate Bill 371, included in the 23-24 budget, has allocated $7.5 million towards Pennsylvania’s indigent defense. Governor Shapiro has proposed to increase this funding to $10 million in the 24-25 budget. The bill amends the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency Law, establishing the Indigent Defense Grant Program.

Senator Hughes emphasized the importance of this legislation, stating, “For most individuals, especially low-income individuals who can’t afford private council, criminal justice reform starts with a well-trained and appropriately funded legal defense. This first-time indigent defense funding and the formation of the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee is the start of ensuring equal justice for everyone in Pennsylvania.”

The need for such reform is underscored by a 2021 study conducted by the Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, which found that over half of criminal cases in Pennsylvania utilized a public defender. According to the Sixth Amendment Center, Pennsylvania currently ranks 45th in total indigent defense funding.

Ron Johnson, a recent exoneree who wrongfully spent thirty years in prison, also spoke at the press conference, sharing his personal experience. He said, “A lot of innocent people are in prison or on trial. And too many people are stuck with a defender who isn’t able to fully help. I’m glad to see this work being done and I’m glad everyone here today is passionate to make things better.”

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The press conference was attended by several prominent figures and institutions within the legal community, including the Defender Association of Philadelphia, the Philadelphia Bar Association, the Barrister’s Association, the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, and ACLU Pennsylvania. All expressed their support for the initiative and emphasized the importance of equal justice and adequate legal resources on both sides of the courtroom.

This legislation marks a significant milestone in Pennsylvania’s pursuit of a more equitable criminal justice system, one that ensures fair and equal access to justice for all. As Senator Hughes stated, this is just the beginning. The fight for justice continues, with the goal of increasing the investment in public defense by 25% in the next budget.

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