Friday, August 20, 2010

Public Defenders Fight for Smaller Caseloads

The current sputtering economy has hit states particularly hard. The result has been dramatic cuts in corrections, law enforcement and prosecution. Many criminal justice observers are concerned that the significant reductions in crime are in peril because of the budget woes.

Often overlooked in this debate are the legal protections that must be provided to those accused of a crime, especially those who cannot afford to pay for their own legal counsel.

Nearly fifty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright, 372 U.S. 335 (1963). In the case, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that state courts are required under the Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to provide counsel in criminal cases for defendants who are unable to afford their own attorneys. The case overruled Betts v. Brady, 316 U.S. 455 (1942), that found special circumstances like illiteracy, stupidity or being in an especially complicated trial, must be present for the court to appoint counsel.

What resulted was the establishment of public defender offices, paid by states or counties, to represent indigent people accused of not only felonies but any crime that could result in jail time.
With the public defender came another layer of criminal justice costs. That group of practioners is, accoridng to some, now "overworked and underpaid." The issue is coming to a head in places like Missouri where the public defenders are invovled in a work slow down.

According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the defenders say they are overworked beyond the breaking point. Some prosecutors say they don't believe it. And the sides cannot agree on a common set of numbers to frame their dispute.

Robert P. McCulloch, the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney, has complained that if he can prosecute 100 percent of the criminal cases with 31 trial lawyers, the public defender should be able to handle the 28 percent it represents with its 17 lawyers.

Public defenders in Florida have taken similar measures, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Some critics have accused the Missouri system of exaggerating its problems to pressure the Legislature for more money in tight times, according to the Post-Dispatch.

Dean Dankelson, who is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and Jasper County prosecuting attorney, recently told the Post-Dispatch that the tactics are "reckless, self-interested and irresponsible," and accused the defenders of "attempting to hold the entire criminal justice system hostage."

The pay range for public defenders starts at $37,296 and goes to $68,000 for the district defender, the top attorney in each office.

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