Facing Crisis, Defenders Grateful for Funding in Newly Enacted Budget Though Challenges Remain
In his budget address in January, Governor Bevin asked the legislature to make investments in public safety with additional funding for law enforcement, prosecutors, and public defenders. Adopting the Governor’s recommendations, the General Assembly’s recently enacted biennial budget includes increases in funding for the Kentucky State Police, Commonwealth Attorneys, County Attorneys, and the Department of Public Advocacy (“DPA”). Public defenders are grateful that Kentucky leaders have recognized the need to invest in public safety, including indigent defense, during this difficult time.
Kentucky public defenders have been underfunded for many years. This chronic underfunding has culminated in a crisis in the current fiscal year. To meet the requirements of court-ordered appointments, DPA has been operating with a deficit for most of the biennium. Just after the start of this fiscal year, DPA implemented a hiring freeze to address the deficit. Caseloads spiked with some offices averaging more than 900 new case assignments per attorney. Such workloads are more than triple the national standards. At the same time, DPA cut other expenses, including training, travel, and office resources. Despite cutting expenses and having more than three dozen vacant positions, DPA projected a nearly $4 million budget deficit for FY18. Without funding assistance, DPA would be out of resources to survive the fiscal year and unable meet court-ordered and constitutional responsibilities.
Fortunately, this is when the Governor and General Assembly stepped in. Governor Bevin, the Kentucky House of Representatives, and the Kentucky Senate all support public safety and recognize that public defense is a critical part of a working justice system. In the newly enacted budget, funding is provided in the current year (FY18) to enable DPA to finish the year without a budget deficit. In the next two years, funding was provided to allow DPA to fill all current vacancies and employ a limited number of additional attorneys to lower caseloads in some offices. Also, this budget provides for eleven additional alternative sentencing workers to prepare individualized sentencing plans so that clients who can safely be treated and held accountable in the community are not sent to prison. All of these steps will improve the justice system and enhance public safety.
DPA is very grateful to Governor Bevin and the Kentucky House and Senate for their investment in public defense in the new budget. Thanks to the funding provided, DPA will be able to continue serving some of Kentucky’s most needy citizens and meet the obligations of courts and the Constitution.
Still, challenges remain. Kentucky public defenders are among the lowest paid defenders in the country. Public defender leaders, many with more than a decade of service, are paid less than many lawyers make straight out of law school. Conflict cases are handled through an underfunded system that essentially asks private attorneys to take cases for free. Some DPA offices span two or three judicial circuits, meaning DPA’s most valuable asset (an attorney’s time) is spent driving rather than working with clients. These chronic systemic problems are not addressed in the new budget.
In addition, even though the new funding will help to reduce caseloads in the highest caseload offices, that is only a start. Overall, even after new funding is implemented, DPA caseloads will remain far above national standards and higher than any attorney should be required to handle.
Over the next biennium, DPA is committed to giving the Commonwealth a good return on its new investment. When the next budget is created, DPA hopes to address the other problems that have developed due to years of underfunding in prior budgets.