States and counties struggling to balance their budgets are cutting spending on public defenders, a move some lawyers say is compromising criminal defendants' constitutional right to counsel.
Providing for that right, enshrined in a 1963 Supreme Court ruling, has grown increasingly expensive amid a dramatic rise in arrests and prosecutions in recent decades.
Spending on indigent defense rose from about $1 billion in 1986 to roughly $5.3 billion in 2008, according to a 2010 report released by the American Bar Association. The increase was partly in response to litigation challenging the adequacy of funding for indigent defense, lawyers said.
The austerity moves stemming from funding constraints these days include laying off public defenders, holding the line on salaries, and reducing spending on the defense's case investigators and staff training.
"The system is not allowing us to provide competent representation," said Edward Monahan, the head of the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy, which lost about $500,000, or 1.5%, of its funding this year, and faces an additional 2.5% budget cut in the coming fiscal year.
"We are running caseloads in excess of 450 per lawyer....With additional budget cuts to be imposed in  and case assignments continuing to rise, average caseloads will likely exceed 500 new cases per year."