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Study Finds Public Defenders’ Heavy Workloads Prevent Effective Representation, Amendments to 50-Year-Old Guidelines Recommended

by Douglas Ankney

The National Public Defense Workload Study (“Study”) examined the guidelines created by the National Advisory Committee in 1973 (“NAC Standards”) that determine the recommended number of cases annually that a public defender should handle. The Study was conducted by a team of attorneys and researchers from the RAND Corporation, the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association, and the Law Office of Lawyer Hanlon (“Researchers”) and concluded that “public defenders face extremely heavy workloads that prevent them from providing effective legal representation to people accused of crimes.”

The Study revealed that the NAC Standards are outmoded and inapplicable today, primarily due to changes in evidence in current cases. DNA and other complex forensic data, cellphones, surveillance cameras, body cameras, social media, and other types of evidence that make defense more complex did not exist 50 years ago. Additionally, changes in the judicial system’s understanding of mental illness, drug addiction, and youthful offenders require more from public defenders today.

Even though ethics rules require criminal defense lawyers to limit their caseloads to ensure attorneys provide a level of legal representation guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, public defenders are “being asked to juggle too much work against their will, a phenomenon that eventually causes harm to their clients.” Attorney and Study co-author Malia Brink said “[p]ublic defense attorneys with excessive caseloads cannot give appropriate time and attention to each client. A justice system burdened by that form of triage denies all people who rely on it—victims, witnesses, defendants, and their families and communities—equal justice.”

The current NAC Standards allow public defenders to “devote” 13.9 hours to each felony case and 5.2 hours to each misdemeanor case. That translates to each public defender handling—on average—150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases annually. And the 13.9 hours per felony does not distinguish between more serious offenses such as murder or a less serious property offense like breaking into a vehicle to steal a stereo.

According to the Study, public defenders typically handle 200 cases per year that involve mental illness and the same number each year involving juveniles. Plus, the attorney is expected to work on 25 appeals each year. Disturbingly, the Study found that in some jurisdictions, public defenders were assigned cases grossly in excess of the NAC recommended levels (e.g., each public defender in St. Clair County, Missouri, handled 350 cases annually and in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, each attorney handled in excess of 300 felonies annually).

The proposed amendments to the NAC Standards more than doubles the amount of time spent defending felonies (recommending 35 hours per case) and more than quadruples the amount of time defending misdemeanors (recommending 22.3 hours per case). Additionally, the proposed amendments allow for a “sliding scale” of six categories of felonies based upon the seriousness of the charged offense—with the more serious offenses receiving more hours of work from the attorneys. These amendments would reduce by more than half the number of cases assigned to each attorney.

“We have seen over and over again that our justice system makes mistakes,” Brink said. “Preventing those mistakes from ever happening requires devotion of time. If we really believe in equal justice, then that person who relies on public defenders is entitled to that same ability to test the prosecutor’s evidence as someone who is wealthy.”   



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