public defenders, public representation
Steve Helber/AP

Overworked Public Defenders Want Right to Reject Cases

November 11, 2008 07:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
Public defenders in several states have begun to turn down cases, arguing that they are overworked and underfunded.

‘The Quality of Public Defense Around the Country Is Absolutely Deteriorating’

Contending that large caseloads are making it impossible to adequately defend their clients, public defenders in at least seven states have either turned down cases or filed lawsuits for the right to do so.

Public defenders have traditionally had far larger caseloads than private defense attorneys, but the situation has worsened in recent years. The number of cases is rising, but many public defenders' offices have faced budget cuts. Public defenders have little time to research a case or prepare a defense before stepping in court, leaving their defendants at the mercy of prosecutors.

“Each person has a right to meaningful representation and a meaningful day in court,” Bennett Brummer, a public defender in Florida's Miami-Dade County was quoted as saying by The New York Times. “They are not getting that.”

Brummer sued the state of Florida in June, demanding the right for public defenders to reject cases in order to reduce their caseloads. In September, a Miami judge ruled that public defenders could hand over their least serious felonies to private lawyers supplied by the state. The Miami-Dade County State Attorney’s Office appealed the decision, and an appellate court is expected to rule soon on the issue.

The Kentucky public advocate’s office has filed a similar lawsuit that is still pending. Public defenders in other states—including Missouri, Tennessee and Minnesota—have begun declining certain kinds of cases and called for funding increases.

“Our lawyers have an ethical responsibility to not take on more cases than they can handle,” Cathy Kelly of the Missouri State Public Defenders System said in USA Today. “We just feel like we have reached the point where we have to say no.”

Analysis: How can the system be improved?

Though many agree that budgets and workloads often leave public defenders unable to provide adequate representation, there are no clear solutions to the problem. With the down economy forcing cut backs in many sectors, states have little money left to increase funding for public defenders.

As a temporary fix, Missouri and Miami-Dade courts have used lawyers from other state offices or hired private lawyers to alleviate the caseload of public defenders. This is an expensive solution, however; in Missouri, a public defender costs the state $300 per case, while a private attorney costs $1,000.

They might also be less effective, according to a 2007 study. It found that court-appointed attorneys are less qualified than public defenders and their clients receive sentences an average of eight months longer than those of public defenders.

If states cannot provide representation, they may lose their right to prosecute defendants. In Florida, the state must hold a trial within 175 days of an arrest, or the defendant is let go. “They will get off scot-free,” warned Don Horn, chief assistant Miami-Dade state attorney, in the International Herald Tribune. “You would have criminals being released back on the street who are victimizing new victims.”

Historical Context: Gideon v. Wainwright


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