An independent news publication of
United Way of Lancaster County


Indigent defense grant will allow public defender to expand client support

(Photo: Tim Stuhldreher)

Lancaster County’s Public Defender’s Office is planning to use just over $100,000 in forthcoming state funding to provide more logistical assistance to its clients.

The county is in line to receive a $104,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime & Delinquency. It is the county’s share of the $7.5 million for indigent defense allocated in Gov. Josh Shapiro’s 2023-24 budget — the first such state-level allocation in Pennsylvania history.

In its application to the Indigent Defense Advisory Committee — a new organization created within the Crime & Delinquency Commission to disburse and oversee the $7.5 million — the Public Defender’s Office is proposing to fund three priorities:

  • Litigation/Client Support Specialist ($43,329): A new position that would assist defendants throughout the court process — ensuring they receive copies of prosecutors’ evidence, monitoring their participation in diversion programs and ensuring appearances for court dates.
  • Social Services Resource Worker ($50,000): New funding for an existing position that helps high-need defendants, such as those who are homeless or mentally ill. The existing funding, from the county’s human services block grant, will be reallocated.
  • Additional funding for conflict counsel in post-conviction proceedings ($11,000): “Conflict counsel” refers to attorneys who represent clients when the public defender’s office cannot do so due to a conflict of interest.

The county commissioners signed off on the application at their Wednesday morning meeting, just ahead of the application deadline on Thursday. The funding will be for the upcoming state fiscal year: July 1, 2024, to June 30, 2025.

The grant will help with administrative efficiency, keeping cases and clients on track and improving outomes, Chief Public Defender Chris Tallarico said.

Lancaster County Public Defender’s Office has 34 funded positions, including 18 attorneys. Its 2024 budget is $3.4 million; the county has roughly $500,000 more budgeted for other court-appointed attorneys.

Currently, the office’s attorneys handle the bulk of the tasks that the support specialist will take on. It’s more efficient to have administrative staff deal with those matters, Commissioner Josh Parsons said: That frees the legal staff to focus on their core responsibilities.

The support specialist is a position the office has wanted to create for some time, Tallarico said. It definitely has the potential to reduce the number of court dates that clients miss — which is a common reason that individuals end up in County Prison on bench warrants.

Local activists have been urging the county to find ways to reduce the number of people jailed for administrative violations. This looks like a good step, said Michelle Batt, founder of the Lancaster Bail Fund and member of Reimagine Justice Lancaster.

“Well-funded and robust indigent defense will play a big role in moving us towards a more just future,” she said. “… We are happy to see that state funds are being sought to supplement the Public Defender’s budget and hope this is just a beginning.”

Access to counsel regardless of ability to pay is a constitutional right. Until this year, Pennsylvania had been one of just two states that provided no money for it. Criminal justice reformers have long contended that leaving it to the counties results in a system that is underfunded and uneven.

The $7.5 million is a start, but only that, advocates told Spotlight PA in January. With it, Pennsylvania is still 45th among states in indigent defense funding.
For 2024-25, Gov. Shapiro is proposing upping the figure to $10 million.

“We need to do more to build equity in our criminal justice system,” Shapiro said in a statement “but it’s critically important that we start here – with sustained, dedicated funding for public defenders.