A study released this week by a public defense advocacy group says Indiana’s public defender system fails to provide adequate representation.
The Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center studied eight Indiana counties over a period of several months last year to determine whether the state’s public defense system is working. According to the report, Indiana isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide effective representation in misdemeanor, felony and juvenile cases.
The study found many counties avoid oversight from the Indiana Public Defenders Commission by forgoing state reimbursement for some public defense cases. That means there’s little enforcement of compliance with caseload limits. And, in some cases, the report says defendants are encouraged to negotiate directly with prosecutors before being appointed an attorney.
“The problem is that the defendants who plead guilty at initial hearings think they have a lawyer when in fact they do not,” the report says. “The lawyer is not securing discovery from the state, interviewing witnesses, examining evidence, reviewing statutes, or negotiating directly with the prosecutor on behalf of the defendant — all of the things lawyers must do to determine if the plea offer is good or bad.”
Indianapolis Attorney Jon Little filed a lawsuit on behalf of several Johnson County inmates last year making many of the same claims. He says Indiana’s public defense system needs a major overhaul.
“There needs to be monitoring on the caseloads, there needs to be training, there needs to be accountability,” Little says.
The report also details a practice in some Indiana counties where judges choose private attorneys to provide public defense, which the Sixth Amendment Center says creates a conflict of interest.
“The attorney takes into account what he needs to do to please the judge in order to secure the next contract or appointment instead of advocating solely in the stated interests of the indigent accused,” the report states.
The study makes five recommendations for improving Indiana’s system, including creating a statewide appellate defender office as a check against inadequate representation.