Shapiro and lawmakers celebrate historic funding for public defenders

Pennsylvania House Speaker Joanna McClinton and Gov. Josh Shapiro posing for a selfie with two public defenders inside the Governor's Reception Room at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on Feb. 12, 2024. (Photo: Sean Kitchen)

By Sean Kitchen

February 13, 2024

Gov. Josh Shapiro’s first budget funded indigent defense funding and public defenders offices for the first time in Pennsylvania’s history. His first budget included $7.5 million for public defenders.

Gov. Josh Shapiro along with Lt. Gov. Austin Davis and Democratic leaders gathered in the Governor’s Reception Room at the Pennsylvania State Capitol in Harrisburg on Monday to celebrate historic funding for indigent defense services.

Last year marked the first time in the commonwealth’s history that Pennsylvania provided funding for indigent defense services, which provides public defenders with resources to provide legal defense for those who cannot afford it, after Shapiro secured $7.5 million in his first budget as governor.

The governor is pushing for a $2.5 million increase in funding for these public defender services in the upcoming 2024-25 budget.

House Speaker Joanna McClinton (D-Philadelphia), a former public defender prior to being elected to the Pennsylvania House, told the room that this was an issue she’s been advocating for since being elected.

“This has been a priority for some time,” McClinton said. “Four sessions ago I introduced a bill on this very issue because it was rather embarrassing as a former public defender to now be a part of the august body of the General Assembly and not do anything significant about us lacking public defense.”

“When we talk about public safety, it’s not only investing in law enforcement, it’s not only in investigating and spending money in investigations, it is also an appropriately funding public defense because what we can never afford is for even one wrongfully convicted person to spend a second of their lives behind bars,” McClinton continued.

Once some remaining pieces of the budget was finalized last December, the funding for the new services were directed to the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency (PCCD) for the creation of a new Indigent Defense Grant Program, which will be used for training and grants to expand services at the county level.

Monday’s gathering in the Governor’s Reception Room occurred following the first meeting of the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee, which is tasked with developing a program to distribute funds from last year’s budget according to a release issued by Shapiro’s office.

“This afternoon, Pennsylvania’s indigent Defense Advisory Committee held its first meeting,” State Rep. Napoleon Nelson (D-Montgomery) said at Monday’s event.

“This committee is charged with ensuring that no matter what county you are in or the money in your bank account, if you are accused of a crime, you can afford an attorney, a good one with the time and resources and training and team available at their disposal to give your innocence the representation it deserves.”

Davis, who chairs the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons and the Pennsylvania Commision on Crime and Delinquency, told reporters that the newly formed Indigent Defense Advisory Committee took the first steps in distributing funding across the commonwealth and that funds should start being distributed by the summer.

“If you don’t have adequate legal representation, you might not even get a first chance,” Davis said.

“Our system is set up with two opposing sides arguing cases on their merits before a judge and a jury of our peers. But if you can’t afford an attorney, that puts you at a significant disadvantage.”

Author

  • Sean Kitchen

    Sean Kitchen is the Keystone’s political correspondent, based in Harrisburg. Sean is originally from Philadelphia and spent five years working as a writer and researcher for Pennsylvania Spotlight.

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