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Schuylkill County News

Report Exposes Major Shortcomings at Schuylkill County Public Defender’s Office

A Public Defender in Schuylkill County is underfunded, overworked, and faces serious challenges in court.

Schuylkill County Public Defender's Office

If you’re arrested in Schuylkill County, the police should read you your Miranda rights.

When they get to the part about not being able to afford an attorney and an attorney being provided for you and it applies to you, you should know that the attorney provided to you will likely be overworked, under-resourced, and severely lacking in their ability to give you a fair shot at defending yourself.

At least that’s what a new report from a social justice reform advocacy group called The Wren Collective. Researchers there just published a report on the state of the Public Defender’s office in Schuylkill County. And what The Wren Collective found at that office is quite alarming.

Now, they’re not critical of the actual attorneys in that office. Instead, The Wren Collective report showed serious deficiencies in how the Public Defender’s office is funded, by both the County and state governments.

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There aren’t nearly enough lawyers on staff at the Schuylkill County Public Defender’s office and those that are there face the proverbial uphill battle in providing you an adequate defense, according to this report.

“We found an underfunded indigent defense system that lacks the support for enough lawyers to represent clients, including at bail hearings that determine release, for immigration consultations where appropriate, and adequate technology for attorneys to properly do their jobs,” the report says.

The Wren Collective Sheds Light on Deficiencies in Indigent Legal Defense Resources in Schuylkill County

Released on the 60th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court ruling in Gideon v. Wainwright, which guaranteed the right to counsel for those unable to afford it, the study reveals profound deficiencies and systemic challenges within the county’s public defense system.

The Wren Collective’s analysis paints a bleak picture of Schuylkill County’s Public Defender Office, plagued by chronic underfunding and understaffing. This has led to an inability to provide effective legal representation, especially at critical stages like bail hearings and immigration consultations. The office’s technological resources are severely outdated, impeding efficient case management and contributing to an imbalance in legal proceedings.

Rural Incarceration Rates on the Rise

Schuylkill County is a classic example of a disturbing national trend, where rural areas experience disproportionately high jail incarceration rates.

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The report highlights the absence of alternative programs addressing underlying issues such as substance abuse and mental health, leading to a cycle of incarceration rather than rehabilitation.

In short, rather than getting people who would be better served with programs that address drug abuse or mental health issues the help they need, Schuylkill County puts these people in jail.

And when these people eventually get out of jail, they are more likely to return.

The County believes a pre-release prison could solve some of these problems and address chronic overcrowding at Schuylkill County Prison in Pottsville. But the drive to build such a facility is often to avoid transporting inmates to out-of-county jails, which comes at a cost.

But the County hasn’t yet proven that that price is more than what it would cost to build their hypothetical pre-release prison.

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Schuylkill County Prison Serving as a Mental Health Clinic, a Drug Rehab Facility, a Homeless Shelter …

Regardless, the Schuylkill County Commissioners are likely going to use this report from The Wren Collective to advance their plans. But that’s not necessarily a solution the study says will make a difference.

“The County’s inability to provide shelter for those who need it means attorneys cannot advocate for their clients to serve alternative sentences to incarceration as effectively as many lawyers in other areas, who can present courts with release plans that include housing access.

“The County also does not have enough resources for specialty courts, like mental health courts. This lack of resources impacts client outcomes, as judges and prosecutors may see incarceration as the only viable response to entrenched social problems,” the study finds.

In addition to defendants with mental health or substance abuse issues, the prison has also become a de facto homeless shelter.

“Specifically, the Schuylkill County courts have an unofficial practice of holding
unhoused clients in jail on unaffordable bail, regardless of the charge or their risk to community safety. According to interviews, many judges and prosecutors believe that people who don’t have a regular place to live are automatically presumed a flight risk, and thus, pre-trial detention is necessary to ensure their appearance in court,” the report finds.

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Short-staffed at Schuylkill County Public Defender’s Office

Many of those defendants and others in Schuylkill County require the services of a Public Defender because they don’t have the money to afford an attorney of their own.

This is putting an incredible strain on the Public Defender’s Office. And the last thing the Public Defender’s Office can handle is more strain.

The Wren Collective report indicates that the Schuylkill County Public Defender’s office is severely understaffed.

It only has three full-time attorneys, six part-time attorneys, six investigators (just two of whom are full-time), and one part-time office administrator.

This small team is responsible for handling the legal needs of the entire indigent population in the county.

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One of the reasons why there are so many people headed to prison in Schuylkill County is likely the lack of focused legal defense.

The limited legal staff in Schuylkill County faces an overwhelming number of cases, far beyond recommended caseloads, leading to compromised legal representation quality.

“One full-time attorney reported having 172 cases. Another full-time attorney had approximately 142 cases, and a part-time attorney had 125 cases, not including his private practice caseload,” the report states.

Technology Deficient

Underfunding leads to a reduction in the quality of legal representation provided by public defenders. With insufficient resources, public defenders in Schuylkill County struggle to perform essential tasks such as conducting thorough investigations, engaging expert witnesses, and preparing comprehensive defense strategies.

This can result in less effective legal representation for clients, potentially leading to unjust outcomes.

There’s a significant technological gap, with the Public Defender’s office lacking essential tools like an updated case management system and adequate scanning equipment, The Wren Collective found.

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From its report …

“The public defender office cannot meet basic technological needs. The only scanner that uploads documents onto their case management system is broken. The case management system is outdated. The County’s technology department continues to tinker with it but the system has limited capabilities to collect and analyze data. During the pandemic, when court appearances were primarily held virtually, the office struggled to purchase sufficient web cameras to make their necessary court appearances. The District Attorney’s office has a projector they are able to connect to a laptop in court to display exhibits for the jury. Since the public defender is not equally equipped, they have to borrow it from the prosecutor. This does not happen often – according to one attorney, ‘very rarely do we bring anything technological to the table.’ Instead, if attorneys are introducing exhibits, they tend to use printed paper exhibits that are passed around amongst the jurors. This may limit the efficacy of the exhibit altogether, since the jury is not simultaneously viewing
the exhibit as the testimony occurs.”

Expert Witnesses Not For Thee

Cases involving a Public Defender really become one-sided when the prosecution starts calling expert witnesses to help make their case.

That’s a luxury a defendant who has the services of a Public Defender in Schuylkill County doesn’t have.

When The Wren Collective inquired about this particular deficiency, here’s what researchers found:

“Interviews reveal that public defenders scarcely use experts to affirmatively help their cases. On rare occasions, the public defender retains experts at the pre-trial stage to conduct assessments and write psychological reports, because they suspect that due to a mental condition, their client does not have the capacity to understand the charges against them or participate in their own defense. The public defender uses that expert to convince the judge to halt criminal proceedings.

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But interviews reveal that the public defender office otherwise rarely uses experts. Expert witnesses are an important tool for public defenders. Pretrial, an attorney can retain a defense expert to establish mitigating evidence and the public defender office has to rely on prosecutors to accurately calculate prior record scores, and it means that case management software cannot be fully integrated to help refine the defense’s theory of the case. A defense expert can examine evidence and determine whether counsel should initiate further investigation. A defense expert can also point out issues with a government expert’s report that an attorney without specialized knowledge could never identify.

Attorneys also usually do not use defense experts to challenge the government’s experts. Instead, public defenders reported that they often use cross-examination as the sole defense tactic in those cases. Cross-examining an expert necessitates that the defense attorney have a strong grasp on the subject, which they may not if the subject is complicated, like interpreting DNA evidence or forensic pathology. Even if the attorney does not plan on using the expert at trial, a defense expert in the same field can be crucial for helping counsel prepare that cross-examination.

There are many reasons why defense attorneys might under-utilize experts in Schuylkill County. One reason is because it is difficult to find experts who reside in or near Schuylkill County, and it is costly to pay for travel expenditures.

Second, longstanding budget constraints have led to a culture of under-utilizing experts. Using the most comprehensive data available to us, which is from 2020, the average cost of a public defender case in Pennsylvania is $1,216.54. In Schuylkill it is only $620.79.31

Therefore, when Chief Public Defender Karen Domalakes reports the office remains well within the budget, it is possible that attorneys are not requesting experts because attorneys know they must be budget-conscious when considering such requests. One attorney reported that there is a perception amongst public defenders that the office cannot afford to hire an expert due to fiscal issues, so attorneys pursue alternate options.”

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Immigration Consultation Deficiencies

The office’s shortcomings in providing necessary immigration consultations, as mandated by the Supreme Court’s ruling in Padilla v. Kentucky, are a glaring issue in Schuylkill County, too, researchers found.

What The Wren Collective found here probably isn’t much of a surprise to many here. The Public Defender’s Office severely lacks the resources needed to manage clients who don’t speak English, for example.

In some cases, the County may not be fulfilling its Constitutional requirements in these instances.

Here’s what they publish in their report:

“We learned that the office has seen a considerable increase in non-English speaking clients. At the time of our visit, there were no Spanish-speaking staff in the office, or access to a language line, a translation service conducted over the phone. Attorneys either waited to talk to their client in court, where they could utilize the court’s translator, used a translation application on their cell phone, or communicated with their client through family or a friend who could translate between English and Spanish.

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Attorneys in the office often advise non-citizen clients to search the internet for an immigration attorney, or sometimes, the attorney may provide information for an immigration attorney they found on the internet. But the office does not have an established relationship with an immigration attorney to provide consultations or direct their client on collateral consequences. If an attorney does make a referral, there is no procedure in place to verify those clients received an immigration consultation as the U.S. Constitution requires.”

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