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Lawsuit highlights problems with state's public defense system

Even people who have never been arrested and never worked in the criminal justice system are often familiar with the Miranda warning. As heard in countless TV shows and movies, the warning advises arrestees that they have the right to remain silent, the right to an attorney, and that an attorney will be provided for them if they cannot afford one.

That last part of the warning refers to the appointment of a public defender, an issue that has been the subject of much legal argument in Pennsylvania in recent years.

Recently, the Pennsylvania chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union announced it was ending a long-running lawsuit that accuses the state of neglecting its constitutional duty to provide defense attorneys to impoverished people who have been accused of crimes.

Unlike all other states, Pennsylvania does not have a state office that oversees and funds a public defender program. Instead, it leaves the task up to the counties.

The litigation began in 2012, when the ACLU sued over the lack of funding in Luzerne County. The ACLU said it was dropping its case because the quality of public defense has dramatically improved in Luzerne County, but the organization still thinks the state needs to provide centralized funding to ensure fairness to indigent defendants in all counties.

There are many public defenders who work hard and do amazing work for their clients against incredible odds. But the chronic underfunding of public defender's offices in Pennsylvania takes its toll.

If you have been accused of a crime, speak to a private criminal defense attorney to learn about your options. The prosecution will throw everything it has against you to win a conviction. It's important that you build the best defense you can.

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