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Kamala Harris to push pay hikes for public defenders

California Democrat wants to bring parity with prosecutors

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is proposing improvements for public defenders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is proposing improvements for public defenders. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Sen. Kamala Harris is set to unveil a new effort Wednesday to boost the pay of public defenders, as part of an effort to improve legal services.

Under a bill that the California Democrat — and 2020 White House hopeful — is set to introduce, there would be new limits on the workload for lawyers working full-time as public defenders, and a path to bring defenders’ pay in line what what is earned by prosecutors.

And that will go beyond the lawyers themselves. The legislation also calls for parity between staff investigators on the sides of the prosecutors and the public defenders. The same is true for paralegals.

Public defenders have long been seen as both overworked and underpaid, and Harris is proposing spending $250 million through a grant program to try to rectify that.

“After spending my career around the criminal justice system, I’ve seen up close how it can fail to ensure that poor defendants receive a fair trial and due process, as guaranteed to all of us in our Constitution,” Harris, a former state attorney general, said in a statement.

“All too often, our public defenders are overworked and lack sufficient resources. This makes public defense unsustainable over the long haul. And the person who suffers is the defendant, whose liberty is on the line. It’s wrong, and it’s the opposite of justice,” she said.

According to a summary and text provided to CQ Roll Call ahead of the official release, Harris also wants to support attracting and retaining public defenders by ensuring support for the student loan repayment program. She would increase the overall authorization for the loan repayments to $75 million, while also boosting the limits for individual borrowers.

Also watch: Kamala Harris is running for president — Here are some congressional basics

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