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Report: Public defenders challenge guidance barring them from sharing in Pa.’s opioid settlement funds


Public defenders in Pennsylvania contend that their offices should be eligible for money from the state’s opioid settlement, and they’re frustrated that the trust administering the funding disagrees, reports Spotlight PA.

At issue is a share of more than $1 billion in funding over 18 years, all of which is to go toward prevention and treatment of opioid addiction. Public defenders say their offices can and do help divert people into treatment, and that it’s unfair that funding is going toward prosecutors but not to them, the online watchdog publication says.

Spotlight PA highlights Elk County, population 30,000, which did not have an in-house public defender’s office until the opioid epidemic necessitated creating one. It had hoped to use opioid funds toward a part-time public defender: Chief Public Defender Gary Knaresboro said his team serves as de facto social workers, referring defendants to housing and counseling programs and following up with them.

The Pennsylvania Opioid Misuse and Addiction Abatement Trust, however, said the office was ineligible for funding, because public defense is already a required government function. Its guidance is posted in an FAQ on its website.

Spotlight PA notes that the same would be true of “other state-mandated services, including prosecution.”

Sara Jacobson, executive director of the Public Defender Association of Pennsylvania, said the guidance doesn’t seem to align with other uses that the trust in its FAQ deems allowable, such as funding body scanners at jails.

“I just have trouble understanding how … body scanners for county jails somehow connect people to treatment and public defenders don’t,” she said.

To decide what is and isn’t eligible, the trust must refer to Exhibit E, a document in the nationwide settlement agreement that lists permitted strategies.

Treatment advocates want counties and the state to prioritize treatment and harm reduction. They’re concerned that counties may find ways to direct the money to plug existing budget holes or underwrite prosecution, which they say would be counterproductive and contrary to the settlement’s intent.

Spotlight PA lists several county district attorneys’ offices that are funding diversion or outreach programs with settlement funds, including Lancaster County, which allocated $193,000 to its Drug Task Force in August. The money is to support two positions over a 12-month period: A prosecutor who works with treatment courts and a detective who oversees drug education and awareness and the Drug Take Back program. Earlier this year, District Attorney Heather Adams told the commissioners that actual eligible expenses would likely only total $100,000 to $110,000.