Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Shining a Light on the Crisis of Indigent Defense

By Marc Schindler
JPI Executive Director

This week 60 Minutes featured a story detailing the crisis in indigent defense in New Orleans, Louisiana. In a city where public defenders have been under-resourced and overwhelmed for decades, the situation has reached a breaking point.

Following years of budget cuts to the office of the public defender, the city’s chief public defender, Derwyn Bunton, has now gone on record stating that his office is not able to provide a constitutionally adequate defense for too many of their clients. While Bunton and his team of attorneys had been doing all they could to zealously advocate on behalf of their clients for years – despite a shoestring budget – the load simply became too much to bare while striving to ensure that everyone receives fair treatment by the justice system. 

Having served 20 years ago as a public defender in Baltimore, where I experienced crushing caseloads and saw firsthand how the system fails to deliver justice, I know that we can and must do better. I had the privilege of working with Derwyn Bunton on juvenile justice issues in Louisiana, and I know that his decision to stop accepting cases was not done lightly, but with the same strong and unyielding commitment to serving his clients that he’s shown his entire career. 

As I consider the dire situation in New Orleans, and reflect on JPI celebrating our 20th anniversary this year, I am reminded of our work on this critical issue and our efforts to shine a light on the significant challenges facing public defenders around the country. JPI’s 2011 report, System Overload: The Cost of Under-Resourcing Public Defense, concluded that overloaded public defense systems result in more prison time for people across the country, and less justice. 

According to System Overload, 73 percent of county-based public defender offices lacked the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseload standards; 23 percent of these offices had less than half of the necessary attorneys to meet caseload standards. JPI’s report found that public defense systems across the country are overburdened, and showed how the busting-at-the-seams systems affect state and county budgets, the lives of those behind bars, the impact on their families, and the challenges of re-entering communities after serving time. We further looked at why dedicated public defenders – like Derwyn Bunton and his staff in New Orleans -- do not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients. Not surprisingly, in most of these systems the great majority of clients are low-income and people of color – contributing to very troubling racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony, 400 misdemeanor, 200 juvenile, 200 mental health, or 25 appeals per year. Only 12 percent of county public defender offices with more than 5,000 cases per year had enough lawyers to meet caseload standards. Nearly 60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases due to excessive caseloads. This lack of authority is particularly evident in larger offices with higher caseloads.

With an increasing overload of cases, lack of quality defense and a shortage of resources, JPI made the case that justice is not being served and the wellbeing of millions of people is at stake. We called for reform to the public defense system in System Overload, and we will continue to challenge policymakers to make investments to ensure a fairer, more effective justice system for all. If we want to have a justice system that meets constitutional muster, we must ensure that the 6th Amendment right to counsel isn’t just words on paper, but becomes a reality in courtrooms across our country. Until that happens, we can’t honestly say that justice is being served in many cities and towns across America.