Cases pile up as public defenders stung by budget

Joe Gratz; Creative Commons gavel

Across the country, a shortage of public defenders and money to pay for them is creating a backlog of cases, forcing those charged with crimes to spend more time in jail awaiting trial or a plea deal.

In Knox County, Tenn., people charged with misdemeanor crimes and unable to afford a lawyer can expect one of the county's 24 public defenders to spend about three hours resolving their case—almost always with a plea deal.

In Maryland, the state's 500 public defense attorneys are stretched so thin handling 200,000 cases a year that another 10,000 cases are farmed out to 70 private lawyers paid $50 an hour.

And in the state of Washington, some top law enforcers are deciding not to aggressively prosecute lower-level drug crimes and robberies because they know many of those cases will linger in county courts with too few lawyers to represent poor defendants.

Across the country, a shortage of public defenders and money to pay for them is creating a backlog of cases, forcing those charged with crimes to spend more time in jail awaiting trial or a plea deal.

"Public defenders have reputations, and most of the time they're not very good," said Mark Stephens, who manages Knox County's two dozen public defenders—far fewer than he needs to best handle about 11,000 cases a year.

"That notion is ratcheted up 10 times now," he said. "All people are seeing and hearing is that the public defender's office can't do anything, and they're not going to be able to effectively represent me."

Stephens was joined by four public defenders and a prosecutor who spoke at Stanford Law School on Monday about the problems caused by what they call paltry funding for indigent criminal defense in the country's state and county courts.

"It is a system-wide problem," said Jeff Adachi, San Francisco's public defender, who is ignoring Mayor Gavin Newsom's call for city departments to cut their budgets by 25 percent, a move he says would cost nearly 40 lawyers.

"This is a crisis of constitutional dimension," he said.

Law Professor Robert Weisberg, director of the Stanford Criminal Justice Center and moderator of Monday's panel discussion, said public defenders have long dealt with inadequate funding. But their budgets are being squeezed even more by a national economic crisis forcing state and local governments to slash their spending, he and the panelists said.

"Our lawmakers always said they were sorry they couldn't give us more money," Stephens said. "Now they get to say it with sincerity."

Some states pay private lawyers a flat fee to help public counsel represent indigent defendants. In Maryland, those private lawyers receive $50 an hour. But when Nancy Forster, Maryland's chief public defender, ran out of money in her own budget last year to pay for the private lawyers, the tab had to be picked up by county governments.

"That went on for two months before there was a huge uproar," she said.

Lawmakers quickly gave her $3.5 million to resume paying the private lawyers. But looking into the future, Forster sees an even tighter budget.

"In 2010, I have even less," she said.

Some of the workload crushes have led to their own court cases. In Florida, a judge allowed the Miami-Dade Public Defender's Office to stop taking some felony cases because the department doesn't have enough money and manpower to effectively represent clients. That decision is under appeal.

Without enough lawyers to immediately represent them, poor defendants unable to post bail are forced to spend more time in jail before their cases can be resolved. And that violates their right to a speedy trial, some say.

"The system continues to roll on, but it rolls on with less quality," said Bennett Brummer, a former Miami-Dade public defender. "There's no policy except for lock 'em up and throw away the key. There's no concern about constitutional rights."

And public defenders aren't the only ones being hurt. Erin Becker, the senior deputy prosecutor for King County, Wash., said her office is not pursuing some minor drug and theft cases because there aren't enough public defenders to handle them.

Becker said crime victims are waiting longer for resolution of their cases because defendants aren't getting their day in court anytime soon.

"If public defenders are not adequately funded, our caseload backs up and we're not bringing justice," she said.