A National Assessment of Public Defender Office Caseloads

Article excerpt

Nearly 50 years after the United States Supreme Court ruled in Gideon v. Wainwnght1 that states were required to ensure a constitutional right to counsel for defendants unable to afford a private attorney, it is widely recognized that indigent defense systems are in a state of crisis. Many have long argued that because of underfunding and understaffing, a lack of political independence to turn down cases, and other factors, public defenders face caseloads so excessive that they are unable to provide capable and effective representation.2 There have been a number of recent cases in which public defenders have gone before the courts to refuse cases due to overload or sued over excessive caseloads. In some instances, courts have cited defenders for contempt for refusing to accept new cases. Arizona, Florida, Minnesota, Missouri, and New York are among the states in which public defenders have taken legal action to contend that caseloads are unreasonably large given the offices' budgets and staffing,3

Professional rules of conduct require that an attorney's caseload and workload be controlled to ensure that competent representation can be provided.1 It is generally agreed that workload, a measure that takes into account case complexity, nonrepresentation dudes, and other factors, is a more accurate indicator of a public defender's capacity to provide competent representation than a simple caseload tally/ What constitutes an exessive workload, and how to measure it, however, is still subject to debate. That said, a national numeric caseload standard has existed since 1973, when the U.S. Department of Justice's National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals (NAC) released recommendations for the improvement of the justice system. The NAC standard provides that a public defender caseload should not exceed, per year, 1 50 felony, 400 misdemeanor, 200 juvenile, 200 mental health, or 25 appeals cases per attorney.11

Numerous studies have examined workloads or caseloads in individual states and jurisdictions, but no systematic assessment of public defender office caseloads and staffing nationwide has been conducted. To better understand caseload burdens on public defenders from a truly national perspective, we examine findings from the first census of public defender offices. The Bureau of Justice Statistics' 2007 Census of Public Defender Offices (CPDO) collected data on the caseloads and staffing of public defender offices across the country that provide general criminal defense services. (Note that the CPDO did not collect data about other methods of providing indigent defense services, such as assigned counsel or contract systems.) The analysis relies on data from about 960 public defender offices in 49 states and the District of Columbia.

The analysis distinguishes statebased from county-based public defender systems. In 2007, 22 states had one office that oversaw indigent defense operations throughout the state. The remaining 27 states and the District of Columbia had offices that were funded and administered at the county or local jurisdictional level.7 (Maine had no public defender offices in 2007.) State oversight potentially allows for a more appropriate distribution of resources across the state. For example, state public defender programs could transfer staff and other resources from one office to another should the need arise, an option unavailable in states with county-based systems. In other words, these systems operate differently from one another in ways that are directly relevant to the caseloads carried by public defenders. Due to these differences, we examine state- and county-based systems separately.

Caseloads and staffing

The CPDO collected information from 957 public defender offices nationwide. These offices reported receiving a total 5,572,450 cases and employed 15,026 litigating attorneys in 2007.R This equates, nationally, to about 370 cases assigned to each public defender in 2007 (not included are cases assigned in previous years that remained active in 2007). …