Over Three Dozen Corporate Legal Department Leaders Urge Congress to Support EQUAL Defense Act

This month, Pro Bono Institute (PBI) and its global in-house project, Corporate Pro Bono (CPBO), have worked with the National Legal Aid & Defender Association to rally the support of more than three dozen legal department leaders behind the Ensuring Quality Access to Legal Defense (EQUAL Defense) Act of 2021 through a successful letter campaign.  The act, formally introduced to Congress as H.R.1408 in February of 2021, aims to establish pay parity between defenders and prosecutors via a federal grant program that would invest $250 million annually to reduce the immense public defender workloads across state, local, and tribal systems.

Last week an influential group of 37 corporate general counsel (GCs) and chief legal officers (CLOs) representing numerous industries signed the March 18, 2022 letter addressed to the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Committees on the Judiciary in support of the EQUAL Defense Act.

The letter, sent to Congress on National Public Defender Day, highlights the critical role public defenders occupy in the justice system in addition to the shortcomings of the system that negatively impact access to equal justice under the law.  The landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, 373 U.S. 335 (1963) declared that states are required to appoint attorneys for individuals accused of serious crimes in state courts who cannot afford to retain counsel on their own. However, the public defender system has remained under-funded and over-worked, resulting in tremendous workloads and gaps in access to counsel.[1]  The standards for public defense lies with the states, and often smaller jurisdictions, which has led to disparities in the quality of and access to representation for those who rely on public defenders.  The EQUAL Defense Act seeks to remedy this by committing federal government funding and trainings for public defense services, to address these disparities as a matter of public policy.

PBI and CPBO thank the GCs and CLOs for their support of the EQUAL Defense Act of 2021 and their commitment to legal aid, access to justice, and pro bono legal services.  For more information, please contact CPBO at cpbo@probonoinst.org.

Thank you to PBI intern Sara Epstein for writing this blog.

[1]  National Legal Aid & Defender Association. (February 2022). Federal Support for Improving Public Defense Quality: The EQUAL Defense Act (CAC Policy Issue Update). NLADA.org. https://www.nlada.org/sites/default/files/Issue%20Brief%20-%20Equal%20Defense%20Act%20%28Feb%202022%29.pdf