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Public Defenders Face Unsustainable, Unconstitutional Workloads: Study

Public defenders have too much on their plates and are spread too thin to efficiently manage their caseloads, according to a new analysis from a coalition of researchers and attorneys.

scale 40635 640The Arnold Ventures funded report, which was published by the RAND Corporation working in concert with the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association (ABA) and attorney Stephen F. Hanlon, finds that overwhelmed public defenders are, overall, unable to reasonably provide constitutionally guaranteed, adequate representation.

“Public defenders and other providers of indigent defense grapple with an overwhelming caseload that exceeds the reasonable capacity for effective representation, but the available data about the magnitude of this issue has been inadequate and outdated,” says ABA President Mary Smith. “This report—which builds on earlier ABA initiatives like the recent rollout of 10 principles for improving the public defense system—offers stakeholders a roadmap for how to genuinely ensure equitable justice for every individual.”

One of the study’s key findings identifies poor data and its implementation as major problems with the public defense system. Specifically, the study points out the 1973 National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which represents the existing standard for public defense, is outdated and unempirical.

Since the standard does not differentiate between the types of felonies public defenders will be tasked with litigating—equal weight is given to homicide, burglary and sexual assault, for example—it creates “a risk of excessive workloads” as those cases do not have like demands on attorneys’ time. To that end, the average criminal case for an adult can eat up anywhere from just over 13 hours of work for a public defender representing a defendant charged with a low-level crime to close to 300 hours of work for high-severity felony charges like murder. As such, advocates are calling for new standards that take into consideration this reality.

“New standards reflect expert attorneys’ experiences with current criminal defense practice, including digital discovery and forensic evidence, as well as the expanded scope of a criminal defense lawyer’s obligations, including advising clients on collateral consequences,” the report’s authors note. “The new workload standards can be used to assist public defense agencies, policymakers, and other stakeholders in evaluating defender workloads.”

From X (formerly Twitter)

Sean Scully @EditorSean ·Sep 26

"South Dakota officials are looking for ways to take some of the burden off counties in funding public defenders, report @SDSearchlight and @statesnewsroom. https://southdakotasearchlight.com/2023/09/25/booze-tax-should-help-pay-county-legal-bills-state-senator-says/"

In support of modernizing the public defender space, The National Legal Aid & Defender Association, Black Public Defender Association and American Council of Chief Defenders also issued a joint statement calling for drastic mitigation.

“As a key partner in supporting quality defense across the country, we are calling on state and local governments nationwide to reduce overwhelming public defender workloads, invest resources into the holistic approach to public defense, and deliver on the constitutional right to counsel,” the statement reads. “Reasonable workload limits are a necessary condition for any public defender to provide adequate representation to their clients, but jurisdictions implementing these limits must also be mindful of other important factors that affect the quality of defense. These include, most importantly, consideration of the lived experiences of the clients who interact with, and receive services from, public defender offices.”

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