Sunday, October 17, 2010

DAs, defense lawyers argue their case on funding priorities

This brought prosecution versus defense to a whole new level.

District attorneys from across Massachusetts gathered at the State House yesterday to hold a press conference at which they planned to attack what they called a broken system that gives court-appointed defense lawyers more funding than prosecutors.

But some of the state’s top criminal defense attorneys crashed the event, accusing the district attorneys of misrepresenting numbers and threatening the fair trial rights of defendants.

At issue is a boost in funding over eight years for the state Committee for Public Counsel Services, which oversees the defense of indigent people.

The Massachusetts District Attorneys Association sent a letter last week to candidates for state office, complaining that last year Massachusetts spent $92 million for district attorneys to prosecute close to 300,000 cases, and $168 million to finance public defenders in two-thirds of those cases.

“The system is broken,’’ Plymouth District Attorney Timothy J. Cruz said yesterday. “The funding for defending criminals is out of control, while the district attorneys are starving for dollars.’’

But defense attorneys strongly disagreed. Representatives of the Committee for Public Counsel Services, as well as the Massachusetts Bar Association and the Massachusetts Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, attended the event, with many defense lawyers sitting in the back of the room, arms folded, as the prosecutors talked.

“Your numbers are disingenuous,’’ said Rosemary C. Scapicchio, a Boston criminal defense attorney.

The defense lawyers argued that the boost in their funding occurred because court-appointed lawyers were at the time among the worst paid in the country. They also argued that the funding has helped to establish a good defense system for indigent people, making Massachusetts one of the best states at providing constitutionally protected legal counsel.

The defense lawyers also said the prosecutors’ numbers do not reflect the millions of dollars prosecutors receive in federal grants and from drug forfeitures, as well as contributions from investigative agencies such as local and State Police, state crime laboratories, and the state medical examiner’s office.

The district attorneys raised other arguments: Even with the boost in funding, the Committee for Public Counsel Services has routinely overspent its budget: Earlier this year, the Legislature approved an additional $33 million in funding because of budget overruns, according to the district attorneys.

The district attorneys argued that the system has encouraged some attorneys and court experts to depend on income from the state. In 2008 and 2009, for instance, the Public Counsel Committee paid more than $1 million to two psychologists who testify for indigent defendants in sexually dangerous person cases, according to the prosecutors.

The prosecutors also said the average assistant district attorney handles more than 400 cases a year, while the average criminal staff attorney for the Committee for Public Counsel Services handles about 100 cases.

The prosecutors’ group called for an equal distribution of funding to both prosecutors and public defenders, saying “the state’s budget priorities and values are out of synch with the public, and it is the public that is clearly paying as a consequence.’’

Suffolk District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, in a heated exchange with defense lawyers, invited them to a symposium in November at Suffolk University to debate the arguments.

“Let’s have a civil debate . . . instead of a shouting match in these hallowed halls,’’ Conley said, while a crowd of lawyers, legal representatives, and prosecutors watched what had become a donnybrook at Nurses Hall in the State House. “We welcome a civil, a civil constructive debate on this issue. And we can do that better.’’

Even that proposal started an argument. “Why can’t we do it now?’’ Scapicchio asked.

By Milton Valencia,

Source: The Boston Globe

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