Politics & Government

Think public defenders are overworked and underpaid? Kamala Harris wants to change that

Kamala Harris jailed criminals as California’s top prosecutor before she was elected to the Senate. Now she’s trying to help the other side of the criminal justice system — public defenders.

The Democratic presidential candidate and California senator is introducing a bill Wednesday that would help public defenders by putting limits on their workloads, raising their pay to match that of prosecutors, increasing the amount of federal dollars that would go into helping repay their student loans and providing comprehensive and ongoing training to them.

The bill seeks to provide $250 million in grants to public defense programs that meet those criteria. It would not mandate every state and locality meet those requirements.

“After spending my career around the criminal justice system, I’ve seen up close how it can fail to ensure that poor defendants receive a fair trial and due process, as guaranteed to all of us in our Constitution,” Harris said in a statement about the bill. “All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources. This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul. And the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line. It’s wrong, and it’s the opposite of justice.”

Supporters of the bill say it addresses a civil rights issue because defendants who rely on public defenders often are poor and the criminal justice system disproportionately jails people of color. Getting defendants better legal support could help them spend less time in jail.

Progressive Democrats have criticized Harris over her time as a prosecutor, saying she contributed to a system that discriminated against people of color.

She has been criticized for what some characterize as silence as California’s attorney general on the police brutality issue following police shootings against black Americans. Her critics also point to her neutral stance on California’s Proposition 47, a 2014 ballot initiative that reduced some low-level felonies to misdemeanors.

“I’m not interested in getting into that,” said Don Saunders, the senior vice president for policy at the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which supports the bill. “I know she was a prosecutor, but since she’s been in Washington she has been a champion for progressive policy.”

Harris calls herself a progressive prosecutor and emphasizes her role in changing the system from the inside, such as implementing diversion programs when she was San Francisco district attorney and instituting a racial bias training for police officers as attorney general.

Polls have shown bipartisan support for criminal justice reform and a large majority of Democrats support policies that are more lenient to non-violent offenders.

Groups supporting public defenders such as Gideon’s Promise and the National Legal Aid and Defender Association had nothing but praise for the bill, calling it ambitious and important. They called the $250 million in grants described in the bill a good starting point, although they said it was not enough to address a nationwide issue.

“This is a new approach in how comprehensive it is,” Saunders said. “It would go a long way.”

Harris’ legislation is unlikely to become law as long as Republicans control the Senate. But Harris has rolled out a series of bills during her run for the White House — as have other senators running such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts — to demonstrate her policy platforms.

In Louisiana, a February 2017 study sponsored by the American Bar Association found that the state would need 1,769 full-time public defenders to adequately address the caseload. At the time, the state had 363 public defenders, a number that had been declining every year. Harris’ bill would require entities receiving grants to collect data on workloads for public defenders the first year and put in appropriate limits based on that data.

Harris’ bill would also require grantees to increase public defenders’ pay to match that of prosecutors’ pay by the sixth year. The average salary for an entry-level public defender currently is about $51,000, while an entry level prosecutor’s salary averages about $58,000, according to PayScale.

Harris’ bill calls for the government to set aside $75 million in grants to help public defenders repay student loans. It would also raise limits on how much can be paid per defender — from $10,000 per year and $60,000 total to $35,000 per year and $200,000 total.

“Their monthly payments are like mortgages, and they only make $40,000 to $50,000 a year,” said Jon Redding, president and co-founder of Gideon’s Promise, adding most of the law school graduates he works with typically have debt between $150,000 to $200,000. “Loans can easily be the straw that keeps them from going into defense.”

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Kate Irby is based in Washington, D.C. and reports on issues important to McClatchy’s California newspapers, including the Sacramento Bee, Fresno Bee and Modesto Bee. She previously reported on breaking news in D.C., politics in Florida for the Bradenton Herald and politics in Ohio for the Cleveland Plain Dealer.