Public defenders able to set own guidelines

The Sixth Amendment right to legal representation is not dependent on dollars.

But, exactly who qualifies for representation by the public defender’s office is.

Under the Pennsylvania Public Defender Act, the qualifications, including household income, are up to the public defenders.

In Warren County, Public Defender John Parroccini has made a decision that allows more people to qualify for his office’s services.

He has been using 150 percent of the federal poverty guideline for years.

The 2018 federal poverty level for an individual is $12,140 and for a family of four is $25,100. The amount goes up $4,320 for each additional family member.

Most Pennsylvania public defenders, have set their limits at 125 percent.

“By utilizing the greater amount, my office is able to represent more individuals,” Parroccini said. “Although at the current time my office is short-staffed, so this does mean more work for me, I think it is more important that the right to counsel under the Sixth Amendment be protected for indigent individuals as well as those who can afford an attorney.”

The decision of where to set the cut-off could soon be taken out of Parroccini’s hands. The state Public Defenders’ Association is discussing standardizing the qualifications, he said.