Increasingly, media outlets have begun to cover the growing indigent defense crisis taking place in the United States, shedding light on public defenders’ stifling caseloads and the poor people failing to receive the legal representation to which they’re entitled by the Constitution. Last week, for example, a story on Stateline, a news site connected to Pew Community Trusts, examined how public defenders’ offices around the country are trying new tactics to expose and address the ongoing issue of being overburdened, underfunded and understaffed.
According to Stateline, public defenders—from Washington state to Illinois to Missouri to Louisiana and Massachusetts—are speaking out and pushing back in response to what they describe as “crushing” caseloads that prohibit them from adequately representing clients. The numbers of cases assigned to these attorneys is shocking. In New Orleans, for example, 60 public defenders are responsible for approximately 20,000 cases annually. In Kansas City, Missouri, public defenders’ caseloads include 80 to 100 cases per week.
In the past months, defenders in some cities have started taking action to raise awareness around this growing problem and to try to spur change. Some defenders’ offices have held public protests over staff and budget cuts in addition to low salaries, whereas others have started to refuse taking on additional cases and still others have begun to file lawsuits against state governments for lack of funding. Overall, many defenders and criminal justice advocates are expressing that the system as a whole needs a major overhaul.
Some legal experts say that systemic solutions could include: 1) “reducing the number of criminal offenses that carry the potential of jail time” or 2) enacting “legislation allowing the federal government to bring actions against states and localities that fail to provide poor defendants with adequate representation” or 3) enrolling nonviolent offenders in counseling and drug treatment programs rather than charging them with crimes, writes Stateline.
Ultimately, defendants will suffer until meaningful change is made.
Director of the Missouri State Public Defender System Michael Barrett told Stateline that too many public attorneys are forced to tell pre-trial clients that they’ll have to wait—often time, in jail—until their cases can be reviewed. In most of these cases, said Barrett, the defendants take plea deals, even if they’re not guilty, simply to avoid additional jail time and to resume their day-to-day lives.