Gideon Alert: Facing an $18M indigent defense deficit, Iowa can no longer afford its current criminal justice system

BY Jon Mosher on Thursday, April 7, 2011 at 2:56 PM

The Iowa State Public Defender is a 100% state-funded, statewide agency.  Though the majority of indigent defense services are provided by staffed public defenders, the State Public Defender contracts with private attorneys to provide representation in areas not covered by staff attorneys and to handle overload of the primary system.  On March 4, 2011 the State Public Defender posted a message on its website that the indigent defense fund used to pay private and contract attorneys was out of money.  More than a month later, lawyers are still not being paid to represent indigent clients.  

On April 7, WHO-TV reported that a proposed solution has reached a point of stalemate between the state legislature and the governor’s office over the estimated $18 million needed to pay attorneys.  The Press Citizen reports that a House proposal, which the Senate approved on April 5, “entails transferring money from other areas of the state budget rather than providing a supplemental spending bill.”  A Sioux City Journal editorial suggests the governor is likely unwilling to ratify the “gimmick of transferring funds from one state account to another to meet obligations.” 

The funding battle is particularly unfortunate in light of the Iowa Supreme Court acknowledgement in Simmons v. State Public Defender at the end of 2010 that low attorney compensation “will restrict the pool of attorneys willing to represent indigent defendants,” resulting in inadequate representation of the poor. Their words in effectively banning flat-fee contracts seem to be coming true.  The WHO-TV report spotlighted a contract attorney who has already withdrawn from 15 indigent defense cases in three different counties to try to make room for paying clients.  Speculating on the possibility of many more attorneys refusing or turning back cases, the attorney commented on the public safety aspect of the failure to adequately fund the right to counsel. "I think some people would walk free through the speedy trial violations” … “Down the road there could be people suing the state for due process violations. That's just a Pandora’s box that I don't think anybody really wants to open.”


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