Sunday, July 13, 2014

Justice system worth defending

February 18. 2013 4:09PM
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IF YOU ARE accused of a crime and headed to court, mounting your defense should in no way resemble speed dating.

Yet certain people represented by the Luzerne County Public Defender's Office never meet with their attorneys until arriving for their preliminary hearings, at which time, we imagine, they hastily shake hands and then awkwardly exchange a few details about one another before facing the judge.

The office has become so swamped with cases, said Chief Public Defender Al Flora Jr., that he sometimes has resorted to helping an attorney recognize a new client by supplying the client's photo. Rather than effective and impassioned counsel, it seems these clients are getting someone to show them where to hang their coats and grab a coffee.

You should be bothered about this if you care about (1) the Constitution (2) justice (3) the black eye Luzerne County sustained over the kids-for-cash fiasco or (4) any combination of those things.

By all means, voice your concerns. Ask members of the newly formed Luzerne County Council to explore workloads and salaries in our Public Defender's Office versus those of similarly sized counties. Also, implore state lawmakers to begin fixing flaws exposed by the Joint State Government Commission in its recent report on the status of Pennsylvania's indigent defense system.

Many counties – and states – are similarly coping with financial troubles that threaten to reduce the role of public defenders to "public pretenders." In several instances, public defenders actually have drawn the line, refusing cases rather than further overloading their employees, according to a report Sunday in The Times Leader by staff writer Terrie Morgan-Besecker. Expect prolonged court challenges while legal eagles search for a suitable solution.

Meanwhile, you and other Luzerne County residents can approach the problem from a more preventive, long-term angle. Provide volunteer and/or financial support to the area's organizations and projects that steer people away from criminal behavior. Or that help to rehabilitate them when they slip.

Champion drug-and-alcohol treatment centers. Make getting a high school degree, and a college diploma, a priority for the children in your life. Pitch in for parent-teacher groups and at after-school programs. Be a booster for mentorship-style initiatives such as Big Brothers/Big Sisters and Scouting.

Alternatively, you could stay mum on this subject and do nothing, convincing yourself that what goes on in your community – even your courthouse – is largely out of your control.

But for that line of thinking, there truly is no defense.

Ask members of the newly formed Luzerne County Council to explore workloads and salaries in our Public Defender's Office …

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