May 3, 2016

The Right to an Attorney – Paying for Public Defenders

Nationally, most public defender’s offices do not have enough lawyers to appropriately handle the caseload.  In 2011 the Justice Policy Institute found that only 27% of county-based and 21% of state-based public defender’s offices had enough lawyers for the offices’ caseload. The Pew Charitable Trusts citied the institute’s findings in a recent article discussing how the problem arose and its unintended consequences.  

How did this problem arise? According to a National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers representative the article cited, state and local governments have been cutting funds for public defender offices while legislatures have simultaneously elevated many infractions from civil to criminal penalties. 

The unintended consequences of these trends can be seen in Louisiana where the Public Defender Board has been sued for putting new clients on a waiting list due to a shortage of attorneys. The unintended consequences can also be seen in Missouri, where, according to the article, the state’s public defenders spend nine hours on certain felony cases that require 47 hours of work.  The U.S. Department of Justice noted this trend, finding that because of the size of the public defender’s caseloads, defendants in St. Louis County, Missouri, were experiencing an unconstitutional denial of due process.

The article describes what appears to be a vicious cycle in which an unrepresented defendant charged with a misdemeanor, such as petty theft or marijuana possession, may end up taking a disadvantageous plea deal that results in a fine he or she cannot afford to pay, an outcome that causes him or her to end up back in jail.  The costs associated with housing people in the correctional system and the negative impact conviction has on a person’s employability are also negative outcomes of a stretched public defense system.

The Miami-Dade County Public Defender’s Office is attempting to address this crisis by making attorneys available to monitor misdemeanor cases, but the effectiveness of this approach is still being studied, per the article.

The full article is available below: