It’s been a little over 50 years now since the Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963 and the birth of the public defenders concept in this country.
Although there had been some provisions for free attorneys for indigent persons prior to Gideon, Gideon served as the catalyst, as it were, for a wave of change. Wikipedia’s public defender article notes that “over half a century before Gideon, the first person to ever propose the creation of a public defender's office was California's first female attorney, Clara Shortridge Foltz, in a time when young, inexperienced attorneys were often ordered by the courts to defend indigents pro bono. In that capacity, she saw firsthand the inequitable results of that system and became the first to proposed the idea of public defenders in a speech at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893. As a result of her lobbying, Los Angeles County hired Walton J. Wood to head the first public defender's office in the United States in January 1914, and, in 1921, the California Legislature extended the public defender system to all its state courts.”
Problems of excessive case loads and low salaries have been among the paramount issues that have plagued state public defender offices almost since their onsets and continue to be in the news around the country to this day.
As part of the state’s observation Gideon during the Ohio Supreme Court’s Forum on the Law last May 23rd., a panel of Ohio legal professionals explored how the indigent jailhouse lawyer had changed history 50 years ago. Part of that program was a discussion centered on whether the guaranteed right to counsel was being fulfilled five decades later, and addressed how the structure and funding of Ohio’s indigent defense system impacted that promise and quality representation.
The Supreme Court’s news service reported Tim Young’s, director of the Office of the Ohio Public Defender, saying “Ohio has failed Gideon’s promise because of the structure and funding of the indigent delivery system, in part because the 1984 case, Strickland v. Washington, establishing a right to an effective lawyer but not defining ‘effectiveness’, which he finds ‘undermined any incentive to improve our structure or funding,’” (Wikipedia on "ineffective assistance of counsel")
Senate Bill 139, introduced on May 29th. will seek to address at least some of these issues. The bill in its initial form seeks:
-- To provide a 50 per cent reimbursement to the counties for their indigent defense costs, to increase the guaranteed reimbursement rate for such indigent defense costs, to require the State Public Defender to approve the establishment of county public defender commissions, to approve the appointment or retention of the county public defender, and to set a statewide schedule of hourly rates and per case maximums to be paid to appointed counsel, to eliminate the option for a county to operate a joint-county public defender system, to permit the State Public Defender to create state-run regional and district offices that would operate in lieu of the county-run systems, to allow the State Public Defender to use the Indigent Defense Support Fund to pay the state’s portion of costs for the regional and district offices, to provide that the Governor’s next appointment to the Ohio Public Defender Commission be from a list of nominees submitted by the County Commissioners Association of Ohio, and to allow the State Public Defender to contract directly with a municipal corporation to provide representation in municipal ordinance cases.