The New York Times reports on a trend of public defenders refusing to take on new cases, on the grounds that their workload is so high that they cannot effectively defend their clients. With budget cuts coming at the same time as caseloads are rising, government-appointed lawyers claim to be reaching “the breaking point.”
Right now, a lot of public defenders are starting to stand up and say, “No more: We can’t ethically handle this many cases,’ ” said David J. Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.
Similarly, many capable attorneys decline to volunteer for indigent-defense panels (representing those for whom the public defender’s office might have a conflict of interest), because the government-funded compensation is too low — in New York only a quarter or less of typical private rates. Fewer volunteers means more work for each.
There may be something to the argument that much of this work is routine, and not particularly time-consuming. But there are only so many hours in the day, and once you get past a certain volume of cases, things are going to have to slide.
For these public defenders, time is a valuable commodity. Most of it goes to priorities like trials, hearings and court appearances, which are huge time sinks. What is left mostly goes to cranking out canned suppression motions and picking up new cases. There isn’t much time for original research, much less a thorough investigation of any given case. Potential witnesses go unidentified, or uninterviewed. Evidence goes undiscovered or unexamined.
Plea bargains, the usual result for most cases, also suffer. Prosecutors make their offers based on what they think a case is worth, which in turn is based on what the prosecutor knows about the case. Unless a defense attorney can present new evidence, or a new way of looking at the evidence, the defense attorney is going to have a hard time changing the prosecutor’s mind. But without time to develop such evidence or new ways of looking at it, the public defender can be left with few tools beyond whining and begging, which are rarely effective. The upshot is that a defendant must settle for a worse deal, because there wasn’t time to negotiate a better one.
It’s not as though prosecutors don’t share the same high caseload, and suffer the same budgetary constraints. Prosecutors also have much more work to do for a given case, as they must investigate and assess the evidence, prepare and present witnesses to grand juries, and prepare and present witnesses at hearings and trial, in addition to making the necessary court appearances, responding to the motions, etc. If both sides are under similar burdens, perhaps the injustices balance out. Or perhaps the injustices are magnified, as time-starved prosecutors similarly miss out on the chance to develop evidence or insights that would better serve the defendant.
The underlying concern is whether defendants’ interests can be adequately protected by public defenders with barely sufficient resources to go through the motions for most cases. Perhaps, and perhaps not.
It is difficult to see, however, how refusing to represent defendants at all can possibly help them. This ploy seems intended to serve nobody’s interests but those of the public defenders themselves.