Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Public defenders: 'We are worse off than we thought'

More than a half-century after the Supreme Court ruled that impoverished criminal defendants must be provided lawyers free of charge, the state of indigent defense remains “unconscionable,” in the words of Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.

In Missouri, where public defenders say they are especially burdened, many legal experts hope that an exhaustive new analysis of workloads and needs, sponsored by the American Bar Association, will strengthen their multiyear battle for change, reported the New York Times.
Chronically understaffed, and reeling from caseloads several times larger than those managed by private lawyers, public defenders in Missouri and in many parts of the country have started trying to force legislators to respond. In the last two years, defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state Supreme Courts, the right to refuse new cases they cannot responsibly handle.
“Limited resources move to higher-level cases like murder and rape, and thousands of other defendants are simply being thrown under the bus, with the illusion of a lawyer,” said Stephen F. Hanlon, a private lawyer who is chairman of a national bar association advisory group on indigent defense and who provides legal representation to the Missouri State Public Defender System.
The new report, carried out in 2013 by the accounting firm RubinBrown, followed 375 lawyers in the Missouri State Public Defender System who recorded how they spent their time in five-minute increments.
Independently, a panel of private and public lawyers estimated the average time a defense lawyer in Missouri needed to properly argue cases of varying severity.
“We found we are worse off than we thought we were,” said Cathy R. Kelly, director of the state public defender system.

For serious felonies, defenders spent an average of only nine hours preparing their cases, compared with the 47 hours they needed, the study found. For misdemeanors, they spent only two hours while 12 were called for.
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