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There is a nice display in the walkway from the Legislative Office Building to the Capitol in Hartford, Conn. It commemorates the 25th anniversary of the Public Defender System in Connecticut. But the display neglects an important part of the system — special public defenders. Those long at the bar will tell you that the dynamics of criminal representation have changed in the past few decades. We have gone from an era in which most defendants were privately represented, to one in which most defendants are represented by public defenders. Few private practitioners can survive any longer doing only criminal work. Special public defenders handle cases in which the Public Defenders Office has a conflict. There are also a limited number of contracts to do public defender work. The problem is that few lawyers can afford to work at the rates available to special public defenders. Richard Reeves and Michael Sheehan, two of the finest lawyers in the state, recently decided not to accept any more special public defenders work because the Public Defender Commission refuses to pay adequate fees for pre-trial investigation. The result? A system in which defendants are encouraged to plead out because their lawyers don’t have the ability to investigate a case. Ron Murphy, the president of the Connecticut Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, recently wrote to the president of the Public Defender Commission to ask that the commission create a special seat for a representative of the special public defenders. It is a good idea. Imagine the outcry if Connecticut prosecutors were not given the money to prepare cases for trial? The victim’s rights bandwagon would be at full volume, and legislators would throw fists full of cash at prosecutors. The Bill of Rights is mere verbiage without the financial means to permit lawyers to redeem those rights. I have done dozens of special public defender cases over the years, and have only rarely submitted a bill. Frankly, the pay is so trifling it is depressing to calculate what the effort has earned. I have recently stopped doing these cases because I cannot afford them. Accepting $500 for an appeal or a couple of thousand dollars for a felony conviction won’t change things. There is murmuring in the defense bar that until adequate compensation is received for doing this work, the private bar should refuse to take it. The boycott is a good idea. Perhaps when a backlog of cases grows, or the volume of ineffective assistance of counsel writs become so frequent as to become unmanageable, someone will listen. Indigent defendants are too often forced to plea because their lawyer cannot afford the cost of an investigation, lengthy jury selection and trial. We have created a caste system. No one seems to care. No one wants to pay for the representation of those accused of a crime. So here is a cost-free way to increase funding. Have each prosecutor in the state work one day a week for free. Once these servants of justice feel the pinch, I suspect relief will soon be on the way. Norm Pattis is a name partner at New Haven, Conn.’s Williams and Pattis.

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