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The Impact of Neglecting Indigent Defense on the Economics of Criminal Justice

The Impact of Neglecting Indigent Defense on the Economics of Criminal Justice

Michael Barrett*

The full text of this article can be found in PDF form here.

Criminal justice decision-making does not begin with a police officer, a prosecutor, or even a judge; rather, it begins with an appropriator—the legislator or legislators who determine how much funding should be dedicated and for what purpose. At the most basic level, the appropriator can be described as pushing the equivalent of a shopping cart through the criminal justice store, up and down aisles lined with an ever-increasing array of options: prison beds, police officers, drug courts, probation and parole officers, electronic monitoring devices, victim advocates, mental health services, and yes, even public defenders. The appropriator has to decide precisely how much funding to dedicate to each specific function in order to achieve the overarching goals of enhancing public safety and preserving an equitable system of justice.

These options are each represented by constituency groups with varying degrees of influence over the budgetary process. Police officers and prosecutors traditionally have considerable sway, and perhaps rightfully so, with public safety providing a compelling case for funding that translates into a simple and resonant message with voters. Conversely, and if history is any indication, criminal defense lawyers for the poor have very little clout when it comes to attracting resources from elected officials. Regardless, these groups engage appropriators each budgetary cycle on why they should receive additional funding. Given the mutual exclusivity with which budgets are generally constructed, greater funding for one often comes at the expense of another; that is to say, an additional dollar for corrections could mean a dollar less for treatment courts, and so on. Adding to the complexity of the process, these groups—each a spoke in the criminal justice wheel—make their case to appropriators who are often not well-versed on effective public safety strategies or emerging best practices, or even how to scale funding decisions to achieve the aforementioned public safety and criminal justice goals.

The regrettable practice is then to formulate individual budgets in a vacuum; for example, to develop probation and parole’s budget without scrutinizing what is driving its request or how an adjustment to funding in other areas might improve outcomes and decrease the need for resources. Data is regularly overlooked in favor of politics, and funding priorities are instead set by those with the greatest influence.

This approach to criminal justice system funding, not surprisingly, leads to poor outcomes. The following is an illustration of how traditional budget construction often fails to achieve the universal goals of public safety and a fair system of justice. The case for review involves the State of Missouri and how a fiscally conservative state that is self-styled as “tough on crime,” pro-liberty, and anti-Government, has achieved opposite results.

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 *Director, Missouri State Public Defender System