Criminal defense lawyers in Public Defender Offices around the country
perform a vital function in ensuring that every person, regardless of
financial means, is provided a defense consistent with the mandates of
the United States Constitution. These committed, hardworking professionals
fight against overwhelming odds on behalf of clients who are frequently
ungrateful, and sometimes hostile. Their public service deserves our collective
thanks. This however is not to say that the public defense system implemented
nationwide after the Gideon decision is without fault. Overwhelmingly
these lawyers, many of whom are incredibly talented criminal defense attorneys,
are saddled with crushing caseloads. Funding Public Defender services
is perhaps the lowest of legislative priorities, particularly in conservative
parts of the nation. Consequently many lawyers in Public Defender Offices
find themselves with a caseload four, or even five times greater than
the number recommended by the American Bar Association. No lawyer, no
matter how talented, committed, or experienced can be expected to adequately
defend caseloads of this magnitude. There simply are not enough hours
in the day. Lawyers in these offices due to no fault of their own are
put into impossible situations because of under-funding issues.
This issue recently was recently discussed in a thoughtful article written
in the Washington Post by Tina Peng. Ms. Peng works as a public defender
in New Orleans. Her office has been devastated by statewide budget cuts.
Incredibly, Ms. Peng’s office represents approximately 85% of all
persons charged in Orleans Parish but has a budget one-third of the local
District Attorney’s Office. Even more telling, Peng indicates that
her office has only “nine investigators” who are responsible
for investigating over 18,000 felony and misdemeanor cases each year.
These facts of course convey the obvious. Given the crushing lack of resources
in this office it is literally impossible for the vast number of defendants
in Orleans Parish and in other areas around the country with similar situations
to receive a proper defense. Again, the problem is not the dedicated and
hardworking public defenders, but rather, the complete lack of resources
and funding which prevents them from properly representing their clients
in so many instances.
Recently lawsuits have been filed in California and Idaho alleging similar
deficiencies in public defender offices in those states. A quick google
search reveals similar lawsuits in a number of states nationwide over
the past few decades. The staggeringly high workload the vast majority
public defenders are subjected to puts these dedicated lawyers in an impossible
situation. Simply put, effective criminal defense requires preparation.
Facts need to be scrutinized and investigated. Legal issues require exacting
research. And defenses need to be identified and worked on. All these
critical activities take time – sometimes a lot of time. No matter
how talented the lawyer, if he or she does not prepare their case, the
likelihood is that the client will suffer.
While the tasteless jokes about public defenders are completely unwarranted
and entirely inappropriate, there is some validity to the position that
persons who are financially able to hire private counsel are more likely
to receive a good outcome. This is not because more of the private lawyers
are better at defending criminal defense cases. In fact, I’ve seen
far more atrocious private practitioners then I have public defenders.
However, the person with financial means who hires a conscientious and
talented private criminal defense lawyer stands a much better chance of
having a lawyer who is prepared and who thoroughly knows the case simply
because of the reduced caseloads which most private criminal defense lawyers
carry. When this occurs, the odds are the greatest that the client will
receive the best possible outcome.