Justice in Crisis: Venango County, PA's Indigent Defense System Fact Sheet and Report Synopsis

June 7, 2001 12:00 am

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Following is an overview of the situation in Venango County, including a synopsis of key information in the Hartman report and a look at how Pennsylvania’s public defenders system compares with others around the country.

To read the ACLU release in the matter, go to http://archive.aclu.org/news/2001/n060701a.html.


Although the Public Defender program handles at least 75% of the cases brought by the District Attorney and many others matters in which the District Attorney is not involved, its budget is less than half of the District Attorney’s budget.

While the District Attorney’s Office has a staff of 9½ persons (four full-time attorneys, two and one-half clerical personnel, one contract investigator and two victim/witness co-ordinators), the Public Defender program has a staff of 3½ persons (two full-time attorneys and one and one-half clerical personnel). It lacks a full-time investigator and social work assistance.


The caseloads of the two attorneys employed by the Public Defender program are unmanageable.

National standards governing the administration of public defender programs recommend that no one attorney handle more than the equivalent of 150 felonies per year, 400 misdemeanors per year, or 25 appeals per year.

Studies of other public defender programs have concluded that in an adequately funded and administered public defender office, an attorney with a caseload that meets national standards spends between 1300 and 1700 hours per year on direct case work. In contrast, program administrators estimate that each of Venango County’s attorneys currently must spend 2500 hours per year on direct case work.

During the year 2000, the Venango County public defenders handled felonies, misdemeanors and appeals equal in number to those recommended by the national standards, plus

— 117 probation and parole revocation hearings,
— 34 juvenile delinquency or dependency cases,
— 122 proceedings involving the issuance of arrest warrants by the court (usually in connection with defendant’s failure to in appear court or to pay child support),
— 209 proceedings to compel compliance with spousal support orders and fines levied in connection with summary offenses; and
— 49 other miscellaneous matters, including summary offenses, proceedings to hold a defendant in criminal contempt, extradition proceedings, etc.

Moreover, they took 20 cases to trial, and spent, on average, between two and three full days per week in court at various types of hearings.


Even spending 2500 hours per year, however, the public defenders do not have time to provide representation that comports with national standards governing the administration of public defender programs and the delivery of indigent defense services.

The size and varied nature of their case load, and the amount of time they must spend in court prevent them from:

— conferring with clients in a meaningful manner prior to court hearings (many clients meet their attorney for the first time in court);
— investigating the charges against their clients;
— locating and interviewing relevant witnesses;
— engaging necessary expert assistance;
— preparing and filing crucial pre-trial and bond reduction motions;
— performing essential legal research;
— preparing adequately for hearings, including sentencing and dispositional hearings; and
— engaging in the type of advocacy contemplated by the United States and Pennsylvania Constitutions and necessary for our adversarial system of criminal justice to work properly and to yield fair and just results.

Public defender clients whose attorneys cannot undertake the above tasks do not receive fair trials. They are denied due process or persuaded to waive due process protections without a sufficient understanding of the protections they are waiving. They spend more time in pre-trial incarceration that is warranted, they receive harsher sentences than the facts of their case may require, and they plead guilty despite the fact that they are innocent or have meritorious defenses.


Although communications between a client and her lawyer are supposed to be confidential, the Warden of the County Jail regularly violates that confidentiality. The Warden routinely reviews applications submitted by pre-trial detainees for public defender services before forwarding them to the Public Defender’s Office, despite the fact that many applications contain confidential notes to prospective attorneys.

Because it takes the Warden three days to forward the applications to the Public Defender’s Office, he delays the appointment of counsel by at least three days.

The Warden also interferes with the attorneys’ ability to meet with incarcerated clients. Pursuant to jail policy, pre-trial detainees may not make telephone calls to their attorneys from the jail, and attorneys may only visit their clients between 9-12 and 1-5 p.m., the same time periods during which they are often required to be in court.


Although the State of Pennsylvania is ultimately responsible for insuring that its counties and municipalities comply with the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, it provides no funding for indigent defense services and no state-wide oversight to ensure that those services that are provided pass constitutional muster. It and South Dakota are the only two states to exercise such a “hands-off” approach.

As a result, the quality of representation provided to indigent defendants varies widely throughout the state. In 1996, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against Allegheny County for failing to provide its indigent defense system with the resources necessary to provide constitutionally adequate legal representation. The Allegheny County public defender program suffered many of the same problems identified in Venango County – excessive caseloads, inadequate financial resources, etc.

In 1998, two years after the Allegheny County lawsuit was filed, the Country agreed to a settlement under which they would increase the office’s budget substantially and provide the office with an expert consultant to assist it in developing, among other things, practice standards, a training program and a system of supervision and monitoring.

Because states such as Pennsylvania fail to ensure the quality of indigent defense, litigation is being used more widely to address resource deficiencies. Other states in which public defender systems have been or are the subject of litigation include Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Mississippi and New York.

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