Justice Talks—The Next Generation (Duquesne University)

Source: C. Ken Williams, MS, JD, 2023-24 AAFS President
Justice Talks

I recently attended a university function and was amazed to hear all the work being done by students to promote justice for all. From enlightening research to coordinating events, I found a great deal of encouragement in listening to the efforts of the next generation of forensic scientists.

As I listened to the reports of the students promoting equal justice, I thought it would be great for others within the forensic science community to know of these efforts as well. "Justice Talks–The Next Generation" provides an opportunity for educators to highlight the efforts of their students to promote justice for all through research or justice-focused programs/events. The first submission comes to us from researchers Erica Norris, BS, and Pamela Marshall, PhD, of Duquesne University.

The Impacts of Unequal Public Defense Funding Across Pennsylvania

This project aims to provide a deeper understanding of the public defense funding disparities that exist between counties across the state of Pennsylvania. Because the state utilizes county-based funding rather than the allocation of state funds, the research aims to explore how efficient this system is at properly and fairly distributing money to public defense in each county. Ensuring public defenders have adequate funding is extremely important in providing an ethical justice system that serves each individual citizen equally.

Funding data for both public defense and the district attorney were collected from the year 2019 and broken down both per capita and per criminal case in all 67 Pennsylvania counties. Funding availability for the district attorney served as the "control" for this research. All data was restricted to 2019 to avoid any impacts the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on funding availability. The amount of money available to the public defense in each county was compared to county characteristics such as poverty rate, population, crime rate, and the number of criminal cases utilizing a public defender. The data revealed instances in which counties with a higher number of criminal cases using a public defender had less available funding to allocate toward each case. Generally, the district attorney funding in most counties was significantly higher than public defense funding.

The second phase of the study involves surveys and interviews with public defenders in various counties across Pennsylvania. The questions focus on individual experiences of public defenders working in their respective county, including availability of support staff, time allotted per client, availability of expert witnesses, ability to conduct independent investigations, etc. These will be distributed across the state through the help of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania. Individual responses will be compared to the funding data collected in each corresponding county.

The main goal of this research project focuses on whether the current county-based funding system in Pennsylvania is truly equipped for promoting equal justice for all citizens. Without adequate and proportional funding for public defenders, citizens in certain counties may be stripped of their sixth amendment right to counsel as well as a fair and speedy trial. Underfunding of counties may result in overworking public defenders, who may become overwhelmed with extremely high caseloads that often result in failure to sufficiently represent all their clients. Thus, it is extremely important to ensure enough funding is available for all public defense systems. Data from this study may be compared to funding data from a state that utilizes state funding for public defense (such as Michigan, Massachusetts, etc.) to determine which type of system more adequately provides sufficient representation to all citizens.


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