Pa. Senate Judiciary Committee holds hearing on bill to establish center to aid indigent criminal defendants

A bill circulating in the General Assembly that would establish the

Pennsylvania Center for Effective Indigent Defense Legal Representation is scheduled for committee hearing in the state capital this week.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday will take up Senate Bill 979, which would establish a center tasked with providing training for lawyers, help attorneys enhance capitol case defense skills, and offer appropriate funding for criminal defense.

The sponsor of the bill, State Sen. Stewart Greenleaf, a Republican from suburban Philadelphia and attorney, said last year upon introducing the measure that Pennsylvania remains the only state since the United States Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright that does not appropriate funds to assist counties in complying with that court ruling’s constitutional mandate.

In Gideon, the justices ruled that free counsel for criminal defendants who cannot afford to hire an attorney is mandated upon the states by the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Greenleaf maintains that the commonwealth should appropriate funds to comply with Gideon by establishing and providing for a center to support the delivery of services to indigent defendants in the commonwealth.

If passed, the bill would appropriate $1 million for the upcoming fiscal year to establish the center, according to Greenleaf’s co-sponsorship memorandum, circulated to fellow lawmakers back in May of last year.

“This appropriation will relieve Pennsylvania of its unique position of being the only state not providing funds to help underwrite indigent criminal defense services,” Greenleaf wrote in the memo. “The center will also seek supplemental funding from federal and private sources.”

The center, the senator noted, could either exist as an independent agency or be affiliated with a Pennsylvania law school.

Among other things, the center would develop and provide continuing education, training and skills development programs and resources for public defendants, staff attorneys, assigned counsel and contract public defendants representing indigent criminal defendants; establish and maintain programs for capital case defense skills training, adult criminal defense training, juvenile delinquency defense training, and management and leadership training for chief defenders and public defender office leaders; and establish a virtual defender training library consisting of all of the programs generated by the training programs sponsored through the center, according to the co-sponsorship memorandum.

According to Greenleaf’s office, in late 2011, the Joint State Government Commission’s Advisory Committee on Services to Indigent Criminal defendants, drawing heavily on a 2003 study published by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s Committee on Racial and Gender Bias, concluded that the commonwealth was not meeting the Gideon constitutional mandate.

It was the state commission that proposed a statewide agency to oversee indigent criminal defense services.

“In the spirit of that report but recognizing fiscal realities, my legislation is based on a scaled back proposal from the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice,” Greenleaf wrote in his memo. “The coalition includes many of the members of the commission’s advisory committee and it recommends a center that will provide training and education to providers of indigent criminal defense services.”

Tuesday’s Senate Judiciary Committee public hearing will be held at the state capitol building in Harrisburg.

Witnesses scheduled to speak at the hearing include, but are not limited to, Lisette McCormick, executive director of the Pennsylvania Interbranch Commission on Racial, Gender and Ethnic Fairness; Forest N. Myers, president of the Pennsylvania Bar Association; William P. Fedullo, chancellor of the Philadelphia Bar Association; David Crowley, chief public defender for Centre County; Keir Bradford-Grey, the chief public defender in Montgomery County; Marissa B. Bluestine, legal director of the Pennsylvania Innocence Project; and Phyllis H. Subin, executive director of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Justice.

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