Public Defenders in 7 States Fight Overburdened Caseloads

The New York Times reports that public defenders in seven states are refusing to accept new cases or have filed lawsuits due to overburdened case loads which prevent them from providing effective assistance of counsel.

Public defenders are notoriously overworked, and their turnover is high and their pay low. But now, in the most open revolt by public defenders in memory, many of the government-appointed lawyers say that state budget cuts and rising caseloads have pushed them to the breaking point.

The caseload in Miami-Dade, Florida:

Over the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year has climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases have risen to 2,225, from 1,380.


Public defenders there filed suit against the state.

In September, a Florida judge ruled that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many of those arrested on lesser felony charges so its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients.

The state is appealing the ruling.

On Friday, the Florida Supreme Court sent the case to an appellate court for a ruling. If the judge’s decision is upheld, it will force courts here to draw lawyers from a smaller state office and contract with private lawyers to represent defendants, at greater expense.

It's a national problem:

“In my opinion, there should be hundreds of such motions or lawsuits,” said Norman Lefstein, a professor at the Indiana University School of Law and an expert on criminal justice.

“I think the quality of public defense around the country is absolutely deteriorating,” Mr. Lefstein said, asserting that unless states spent more on lawyers, the courts would force them to delay trials or, as has happened in a few cases, threaten to drop charges against unrepresented defendants.

The most immediate impact of the rushed justice, Mr. Lefstein and Mr. Carroll said, is that innocent defendants may feel pressure to plead guilty or may be wrongfully convicted — which means the real offenders would be left untouched. Appeals claiming inadequate defense are very difficult to win, experts say.

Lawyers are leaving the public defenders offices as a result:

“There’s a race to the bottom here. As the loads worsen, the more experienced lawyers leave. But the cases continue to come in.”

The comedian Lenny Bruce used to say, "The only justice in the halls of justice is in the halls." Here's an example:

[Public defender Arthur] Jones, in between hushed conversations with clients in the hallway or the holding pen, said he wished he had more time to investigate cases and could go to trial more often, rather than accepting the police version of events and then, after a short discussion, helping his clients make a life-altering deal. “I’d love to have time to visit the crime scene and do more legal research,” Mr. Jones said.

Jones quit for private practice last week. His salary when he left: $44,000 a year.

Lawyers in Missouri say their system is on the verge of collapse, In Michigan, defenders call their state's justice "McJustice."

Other states with lawsuits or public defenders turning down cases: Tennessee, Minnesota, Maryland and Arizona.

In New York,

In New York City, financing from the city and state for criminal defense declined by $2.7 million this year, from a budget of just over $90 million. Meanwhile, the annual number of cases has climbed to 226,000, from 210,000 in 2006.

This is an area where President-Elect Barack Obama could make a difference. But, will he? Not if he lets Joe Biden make the calls. Check out his latest omnibus crime bill, S. 2237, the Crime Control and Prevention Act of 2007.

It's filled with appropriations -- for the Departments of Justice, the Treasury, Homeland Security, DEA, , etc.

Section 5109 alone provides for $36 million a year for each of the next two years to prosecute drug offenses.

(1) $15,000,000 is for salaries and expenses of the Drug Enforcement Administration;

(2) $15,000,000 is for salaries and expenses for the Offices of United States Attorneys;

(3) $4,000,000 each year is for salaries and expenses for the Criminal Division; and

(4) $2,000,000 is for salaries and expenses for the Office of the Attorney General for the management of such prosecutions.

Money for the defense? Zero.

Section 2274: $6,500,000 a year for three years for training prosecutors. Training defenders? Zilch.

On violent crime, Section 2265 has grants

to hire additional prosecutors to-- (A) allow more cases to be prosecuted; and

(B) reduce backlogs

Money for defenders? Nada.

No wonder we have a problem with public defender overload. The justice system is like a three-legged stool. One leg is the prosecution, one the defense and one the court. You take one leg away and the whole system falls down.

Biden's latest bill (like his earlier ones) is filled with over-funding for police and prosecution. Obama should appoint a task force to figure out how to cut the prosecution pork from the bill and give some bacon to the defense. And he should keep Biden in the foreign affairs department and as far away from crime issues as possible.

< Late Night: Cry Baby | Sunday Talk Open Thread >
  • The Online Magazine with Liberal coverage of crime-related political and injustice news

  • Contribute To TalkLeft

  • Display: Sort:
    I inquired in Illinois and was told not to bother (none / 0) (#1)
    by barryluda on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 06:41:44 AM EST
    As I mentioned on here and on a blog at LexisNexis Martindale-Hubbell,

    After a 20 year career as a corporate lawyer (Sidley Austin) then as an entrepreneur and business man (LexisNexis bought my company a few years ago), I'm leaving the corporate world to try to enter the courtroom for the first time in my life.

    I met Jeralyn briefly in Madrid when I was with LexisNexis.  That's when I learned about TalkLeft.  I left LexisNexis shortly after the Madrid conference.

    First, I'm off to NITA's two week boot camp in trial advocacy.  Then, hopefully, I can persuade someone to hire me as a public defender or something similar.  If that doesn't work then I guess I'll just hang out a shingle.

    Well, I was told by the State of IL public defender's office that, due to budget cuts, they have a hiring freeze.  I also inquired at the Federal Public Defenders office and was told they have no openings in Chicago (I can't move due to my wife's career here).

    NITA was great -- I got to handle two mock trials -- but other than that I've just been representing a few clients with corporate issues and, unfortunately, don't see any prospect in getting in court anytime soon.  I'm contemplating just going back into the business world since my plan was not to return to the practice of law as a corporate lawyer but rather to learn how to be a trial lawyer.  While I'm confident I can learn, I don't feel comfortable going into court on my own without first having a mentor.  I thought working in the public defender's office would be hard but gratifying, but never thought they wouldn't be hiring.

    I wonder if the situation will improve for public defenders to the point where they can hire someone like me?

    well jeralyn, as you noted (none / 0) (#2)
    by cpinva on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 08:42:07 AM EST
    on another thread, the police only arrest guilty people, so the lack of public defenders shouldn't be a problem at all.

    this would explain why our jails are so jam packed, and a classic example of congress and the states feeding that great penal maw; it's a growth industry.

    don't expect the dems in congress, or an obama administration, to step up to the plate either, they won't, willie horton's ghost haunts every one of them.

    Corruption of greed: (none / 0) (#3)
    by DFLer on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 08:42:21 AM EST
    Prison industry, public and private, gets the dough + Public defender budgets don't = More prisoners to feed the prison industry profits.

    Dallas (none / 0) (#4)
    by txpublicdefender on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 11:32:36 AM EST
    My old colleagues in Dallas, Texas working in felony courts were recently "mandated" by county officials to make sure they were appointed to 40 new cases every month.  Turnover there has been through the roof.

    More to this story (none / 0) (#5)
    by roger on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 12:01:54 PM EST
    As a former assistant public defender, and long time criminal defense attorney in Orlando, the economy has a lot to do with this. Defendants are either going with the public defender, or the lowest price, incompetant, ex-prosecutor, bottom feeder they can find. We have one guy who offers a $100 cheaper fee that the best price you can find. Of course, he pleas everyone out, no matter how strong a case they have.

    When people value their money and posessions more than their freedom, they tend to get what they pay for

    In 1978 my wife was part of a Quaker support (none / 0) (#6)
    by JSN on Sun Nov 09, 2008 at 02:15:39 PM EST
    group called Friends Outside that provided support services for women held the Sybil Brand Jail in Los Angles County. The women would wait for months for their case to be processed and then they would meet with their court appointed attorney for 15 minutes prior to their hearing. Their attorney would advise them to plead guilty to a less serious charge. If they did not like that advice they could ask for another attorney and wait months for another hearing.

    My wife was horrified and protested about this practice and was told "The women are getting the best available representation." and unfortunately  that was the truth.

    I have been told by experts "The criminal justice system does not need fixing because it is not broken." I guess it does not take a lot to be an expert on the CJS.