State lawmakers are considering a plan that public defenders say could gut their funding in Tennessee’s four biggest cities. The proposal would roll back a 23-year-old law that has tied the budgets of defenders to those of prosecutors.
Tennessee law says every time local governments increase prosecutors’ budgets by a dollar, they have to increase public defenders’ by 75 cents.
That’s helped maintain balance in courtrooms, says Metro Public Defender Dawn Deaner.
“Funding for indigent defense services is not traditionally a popular item, either with voters or legislators,” Deaner says. “The legislature in 1992 was really smart.”
The law only affects court systems that receive some of their budget from local government.
Most courthouses get all their money from the state, but the few that do receive local funding include those in the state’s big cities – Nashville, Chattanooga, Memphis and Knoxville.
Public defenders worry the proposal could eventually lead the cities to slash funding to represent the poor. Less money would mean larger caseloads.
If that happens, Deaner says, it could force Tennessee to spend more money. She points to a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling, which says states have to provide indigent defense.
Oak Ridge Sen. Randy McNally, on the other hand, argues that it’s unfair to give public defenders more money every time prosecutors’ budgets rise.
“Unfortunately, over the last few years, the court system has tilted in favor or the defendant and not provided a fair playing field for justice to be served,” McNally says.”
McNally has filed several bills in recent years meant to strengthen prosecutors’ hands. He hopes this proposal will lead to broader reforms.
Both sides could get their chances to make their cases as soon as Tuesday afternoon, when the plan is scheduled to be brought up in the Senate Judiciary Committee.