Public Defenders Have Too Little Time to Defend Their Clients Well

a public defender walking into a Texas courthouse

I want to help you obtain the most favorable outcome possible in your case.

  • Contact me today for a FREE case strategy meeting.
  • Available in-person, by phone, or by video.
Brett Pritchard Law

All over the nation, public defenders are overworked and very rarely have even the time necessary to provide their clients with a legal fighting chance. A 2019 article in The New York Times highlights the problem – and its disastrous effects on defendants.

If you are facing a criminal charge, reaching out to an experienced Killeen criminal defense attorney early in the legal process is paramount.

A Prime Example

A prime example cited by the Times references a lawyer for those who cannot afford to pay in Louisiana who, in April of 2017, had 194 felony cases on his books (113 of his clients had been formally charged). According to a legal workload study explored in the article, the following minimum time requirements apply to public defenders:

  • Charges involving mid-level felonies that carry sentences of less than ten years require a minimum of about 41 hours of experienced legal attention.

  • Charges involving high-level felonies that carry sentences of a decade or more behind bars need a minimum of 70 hours of experienced legal attention.

  • Cases that involve sentences of life without parole require a minimum of about 201 hours of experienced legal attention.

For the Louisiana public defender in question, his caseload amounted to full-time work for five criminal defense attorneys condensed into one, and the defendants involved tend to pay the ultimate price. In fact, in order to give his caseload adequate attention, the attorney would need 10,000 hours, which translates to five years of full-time work.

However, this calculation fails to factor in the cases that would continue to land on his desk that year and the death penalty case – by far the most time-consuming of all – he was already handling.

The Rule – Not the Exception

The Times goes on to report that this example is, by no means, an exception to the rule. In fact, of all the public defenders in the State of Louisiana at the time, this man is not even at the top of the heap (there were about 24 public defenders with even heavier felony loads – one of whom had 413).

This attorney overload is a national problem that affects every state, including Texas.

A District Judge Weighs In

A federal district judge in Louisiana shared in 2017 that the state was utterly failing in its obligation to uphold the Supreme Court’s Gideon ruling – requiring that states provide those defendants who cannot afford their own criminal defense attorneys with legal counsel.

As the district judge said, “Budget shortages are no excuse to violate the United States Constitution.” However, it is important to note that the district judge in question refrained from intervening in the matter due to his intent not to make his court the “overseer” of the parish’s criminal court system, which would go against Supreme Court rulings.

The Right to Competent Counsel

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees the following:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

This right to counsel extends to competent counsel, but there is no guarantee that the attorney defending you will have the time necessary to provide you with a strong defense and do the job justice.

The Claim of an Ineffective Defense

If you are charged with a crime and cannot afford to hire an attorney, it is your legal right to have one appointed to you. If, in the end, your public defender does not have the time or means to provide you with a robust defense, causing you to lose your case, you can claim that you received an ineffective defense, but you face an uphill battle.

The Times reports that, historically, judges have found that even infractions such as the following do not render the public defender in question inadequate:

  • A public defender who drives to work drunk

  • A public defender who briefly falls asleep in court during critical testimony

  • A public defender who uses illegal drugs

Public defenders have immense workloads, and the inherent stress can lead to serious consequences (as these examples illustrate). In the end, you have the right to competent counsel, but this does not mean you have the right to competent counsel who has time to do your case justice.

Part of the Problem Is Inadequate Time Standards

It is difficult to effectively argue that public defenders are inadequate based on the number of cases they represent, even though lawyers with insufficient time to get the job done are clearly relevant to the Constitution’s guarantee of a reasonably effective defense.

A major portion of the problem is that there is no standard that reliably defines how much legal attention is enough for any given case.

The Times’ article shares that those involved in reforming our criminal justice system are banding together to formulate such a standard.

After leaving his position as a public defender, the Louisiana lawyer in question shares his take on the matter – “The workload can be overwhelming even under the best circumstances, and most offices never experience the best circumstances. Most offices don’t have paralegals, law clerks, or full-time investigators.”

In the end, many public defenders are expected to take on these jobs themselves.

In Rhode Island

Another troubling example reported on by the Times involves Courtroom 4C in Rhode Island, where the scene is exactly the same most mornings. Those who have recently been arrested for charges like drug possession, DWI, theft, battery, and more are chained together at the wrist – two at a time – and brought before a presiding magistrate or judge.

The judge or magistrate responds in one of the following ways to each of the approximately 50 cases that tend to be on the docket each day:

  • Setting bail

  • Ordering release

  • Detaining for a further hearing

At the time, most of each day’s defendants were represented by the same public defender – who was handed a sheaf of papers representing his new clients for the day just moments before heading into court.

Legal Triage

This attorney – who has since retired after 33 stressful years on the job – stuck to a strategy of leafing through each packet of arrest reports and “prioritizing cases like a triage doctor.” This amounted to ferreting out – with the help of assigned social workers – those defendants who were most likely to be put in jail without bail.

The lucky clients in each bunch were afforded about five minutes of the attorney’s time (the less lucky clients got far less legal attention). During this time, the attorney held up a legal folder in front of their huddled faces for privacy and gave the defendant a brief rundown on what was happening and what he or she should say to the court.

Again, this is more the rule than the exception.

Desperate Need

The Times reports that approximately 80 percent of all those charged with crimes in the United States lack the financial means to hire an attorney and must turn to either court-appointed attorneys or public defenders.

On those days when Courtroom 4C overflows with defendants, some end up in an additional courtroom where no public defenders stand by to help. These defendants are even more likely to accept plea deals from the prosecution that adversely affect the rest of their lives.

Proponents of change believe that offering every defendant adequate counsel would ultimately prove less expensive and would be much fairer.

Moving the Needle

A crusader for change and one of the leading forces in public interest law for many years, Stephen Hanlon, believes he may have landed on an answer that involves crunching a lot of numbers. Formerly a partner at a large national law firm, Hanlon became general counsel for the National Association for Public Defense.

He collected immense amounts of data from 12 states to devise a new standard that allows policymakers and judges alike to make primary decisions about the number of cases public defenders can shoulder before their work suffers and their clients’ rights are trampled.

The Plan

These studies were conducted by the American Bar Association – along with some of the nation’s largest accounting firms. The idea was not to craft a lofty ideal but to develop something that meets the Constitution’s requirement that those charged with crimes be afforded “reasonably effective counsel.”

The mechanism employed involved questioning criminal defense attorneys about the amount of time that is generally needed to adequately represent different kinds of criminal cases, including factors such as the following:

  • The time necessary to adequately analyze the related law

  • The time necessary to adequately analyze the prosecution’s case

  • The time necessary to adequately analyze the probable consequences of going to trial

While no two cases are ever alike, most cases require a specific range of time expenditure.

The Results

The results of the study are profound. Consider the following:

  • In Colorado, Rhode Island, and Missouri, the public defender had two to three times the number of cases they should have.

  • In Louisiana, the caseloads of public defenders were close to five times what they should have been.

  • In Texas, where Hanlon consulted separately on a similar study, the average public defender had only about a quarter of the time necessary to investigate police accounts, witness accounts, and other relevant evidence in cases involving serious felonies.

Missouri Is Another Story

Those who can’t afford counsel in Missouri face the especially dire consequences highlighted by the Times article. After completing the Missouri Study, The American Bar Association found that public defenders carry such heavy workloads that it is “a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel.” Involved defendants can do little about their plight.

Public Defenders Take a Stand

Hanlon and his contingent focus on two goals: moving judges to take a more active role in reform and providing public defenders with the means necessary to limit the number of cases they take on. In Missouri, however, some public defenders who have tried to do just that have been threatened with contempt charges.

A sad reminder of the real-world effects of the current situation is that a Missouri public defender whose caseload numbered over 100 and who had endured multiple hospitalizations for serious health concerns of his own let the court know that he could not handle the number of cases he was juggling.

In response, the State Supreme Court sanctioned him for missing case deadlines.

Missouri Calls Foul

Hanlon’s study does show signs of effectiveness – even in Missouri. Partially due to the study’s findings, a state trial court judge determined that 16 public defenders in St. Louis County made an excellent case regarding how their caseloads prevented them from providing each of their clients with adequate legal counsel.

The case went on to appeal, but the cause now has something it did not have in the past, and that is the traction that comes from having extensive data that supports the claim that public defenders rarely have adequate time to provide their clients with adequate defenses.

You Need an Experienced Killeen Criminal Defense Attorney in Your Corner

If you are facing a criminal charge, Brett Pritchard at The Law Office of Brett H. Pritchard in Killeen, Texas, is a fiercely dedicated criminal defense attorney who has the experience, drive, and legal skill to help. Your legal rights are well worth protecting, so please don’t wait to contact us online or call us at (254) 781-4222 for more information today.