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Difficult Times for Public Defenders

November 8, 2008

In Citing Rising Workload, Public Lawyers Reject Cases by Erik Eckhom, the New York Times reported on a case where a Florida judge recently ruled that the Miami-Dade County Public Defenders’ Office could refuse to represent many defendants charged with “lesser felony charges” so that the lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. 

According to the article, “[o]ver the last three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer in a year climbed to close to 500, from 367, officials said, and caseloads for lawyers assigned to misdemeanor cases has risen to 2,225, from 1,380.”  Additionally, the defenders office budget was cut by 12.6 percent in the last two years while the workload has increased 29 percent over the last four years.  An appeal by the state is pending before the Florida Supreme Court.

In Missouri, defenders are declining more and more misdemeanor cases and those that are not likely to result in incarceration.  According to Missouri’s state public defender, staff members have not been added in eight years while the annual number of cases had grown by 12,000. 

“In Kentucky, the state public advocate, Ed Monahan, filed a lawsuit that would allow defenders to turn down cases they cannot ethically handle. “Since Gideon, I don’t remember a time when the challenges to adequate representation have been so great,” Mr. Monahan said.  Similar lawsuits are pending, or defender offices have turned down clients this year, in Tennessee, Minnesota, Maryland and Arizona.”

However, some states are increasing their number of public defenders including Nevada, Louisiana and Montana to deal with the increase in number of cases. 

For more information on public defenders, visit the National Legal Aid & Defenders Association website.

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