Governor Deval Patrick is the man who appointed his campaign driver as Chairman of the Parole Board. Given this history, he cannot be trusted to radically tamper with the criminal justice system. That is one of the many reasons why the Governor’s plan to take over the state’s public defender system should be emphatically rejected.
The Governor is pushing to hire 1,500 new state employees, under the farcical pretense that this would save money. Anyone who knows Massachusetts politics realizes that the question of patronage cannot be ignored here. Currently, indigent defense services are provided by CPCS, an independent agency that is known for hiring on merit, not connections. But if brought under the Governor’s control, how long would this last? His first Parole Board appointment, and the recent patronage allegations at the Veterans Services Department, do not provide a reassuring answer to this question.
Indeed, patronage or gross incompetence are the only rational explanations for the Governor’s plan, as his fiscal justifications do not add up. The Patrick Administration claims that eliminating private lawyers and hiring 1,500 new state employees would save $60 million annually. However, a report commissioned by the Legislature and completed last March has already concluded that the costs of a public defender hiring spree would be prohibitive, and would result in a net loss to the state. If the state were to hire enough public defenders to handle even 50% of criminal cases, the taxpayers would lose between $5.3 million and $8.9 million each year. (This report is available at the News section of the Committee for Public Counsel Services website). The state is getting a much better bargain from private lawyers who work for below-market rates, without benefits.
The Governor’s plan is a fiscal shell game. With a state agency like CPCS, the salaries come out of the agency’s budget, but the cost of pensions, health care and other fringe benefits come out of separate areas of state government. That’s why someone trying to be deceptive can say that the CPCS budget would fall if we hire more public defenders. But they won’t tell you that the overall cost to the taxpayers would rise by millions of dollars each year.
The Patrick Administration’s lack of candor on this issue is shocking. Administration and Finance Secretary Jay Gonzales has said that pension costs have been “taken into account,” but he has released no numbers to show how they have been taken into account. This is unacceptable. President Reagan famously said “trust, but verify.” But when the Governor refuses to release any numbers on pension and health care costs, it is impossible to either trust or verify what he is saying.
This combination of fuzzy math and lack of political candor is distressingly familiar in Massachusetts. But the dishonesty and patronage should at least be kept out of the criminal courts of this state. Both the US Justice Department and the American Bar Association have cited the Massachusetts indigent defender system as the model which other states should follow. It would be an outrage if the Governor were to wreck the quality of this system, while cheating the taxpayers out of millions of dollars per year in the process.
(The writer is a private lawyer who takes cases through the Committee for Public Counsel Services).