Kamala Harris unveils bill to fund, support public defenders

Harris grills Barr on White House contacts

California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democratic candidate for president, will unveil a new bill Wednesday that promises to provide hundreds of millions in new funding for public defenders.

Harris’ EQUAL Defense Act would allocate $250 million to establish workload limits for public defenders and create “pay parity between public defenders within five years,” according to a statement released by her office. It would also authorize an additional $5 million to train public defenders.

Some progressives have criticized Harris, who was San Francisco’s district attorney and California’s attorney general, for her record as a prosecutor. Harris has responded that she was a “progressive prosecutor” who fought racial bias in police departments, opposed the death penalty, and tried to keep first-time offenders out of jail.

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In the statement announcing the bill, Harris’ office said that the “scales are too often tipped in favor of the prosecution” in criminal cases.

“And even though there have been encouraging signs, including the election of reform-minded prosecutors, the only way to create an effective system that holds prosecutors accountable and allows criminal defendants to get a truly fair shot is to have a strong and competent defense,” the statement adds.

Public defenders often carry massive workloads and work for comparatively little pay. A January New York Times story highlighted by Harris’ statement reported that the number of cases public defenders must handle often precludes them from mounting an effective defense for their clients.

Harris’ bill would also allocate money to study public defenders’ workloads and reauthorize funds to assist in paying off their student loans. According to the statement, the bill has been endorsed by numerous legal groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP legal defense fund.

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