Legislators Reject Plan That Put Public Defenders' Funding At Risk | Nashville Public Radio

Legislators Reject Plan That Put Public Defenders' Funding At Risk

Mar 23, 2015

Tennessee lawmakers have scuttled a bill that public defenders believed would have jeopardized their funding.

The move came after Republicans and Democrats alike said they fear tipping the scales of justice too much toward prosecutors.

The decision means Tennessee will continue with a 22-year-old law that says for every dollar local governments give to prosecutors, they have to give public defenders 75 cents. The rule is meant to maintain a balance between the two sides in court proceedings.

Prosecutors believe the requirement has kept them from hiring new lawyers and staff, such as advocates for domestic violence victims. At a hearing last week on the measure, House Bill 241, they said each side should have to justify their own spending, leaving it to governments to decide how much money each side needs.

But Rep. Jon Lundberg said prosecutors have built-in advantages. The Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, county sheriffs and local police can each interview witnesses and collect evidence, often at the direction of prosecutors.

Public defenders do similar work on their own, Lundberg told prosecutors.

"You have a virtual unlimited amount of staff," he said. "Who is their staff for that?"

If the law had been repealed, public defenders predicted judges would have to assign more cases to expensive private attorneys. And convictions could be thrown out because defendants hadn’t been given adequate counsel.

Rep. Sherry Jones (D-Nashville) agreed. She said more information should be collected on each side's workload and the risks associated with changing their funding.

“The best way to do it is the right way to do it, and that’s a data-based decision.”

The proposal was sent to legislative purgatory—a study committee, which doesn’t have to report back until next year.