Overworked and Underfunded: The Plight of the Public Defense Attorney

 /  Nov. 30, 2015, 12:07 a.m.


Across the United States, there has been an increase in reports of public defense attorneys who are overworked, underpaid, and strained by political pressures and caseloads. While the national recommendation for a public defender's caseload is around 150 cases per year, recent studies have indicated that in some counties public defenders may manage as many as one thousand cases per year. One study in New Orleans found that some part-time public defense attorneys may spend as little as seven minutes per case. These numbers beg the question of whether a coherent defense can really be created in such a limited time frame. An indisputable part of the American legal system is the right to an attorney. But what happens when public defense attorneys can’t offer cases the attention they need? The Gate’s Maddie Witters spoke with Christina Carr, who served as a defense attorney in St. Louis City between 2012-2014, to find some answers. St. Louis is notorious for having one of the highest concentrations of crime—and some of the most burdened public defense attorneys—in the US.

The Gate: As a public defense attorney in St. Louis City, what was a typical day like? How many cases were you responsible for?

Christina Carr: It’s a lot of stuff that you wouldn’t think you would have to do, like make sure that you have your calendar straight and your court dates are in there, send out reminders to your clients, those types of things. Now, if you work in a smaller office, then a legal assistant will do this work for you. That was never the case where I worked. We had very minimal support staff, and we were doing a lot of administrative tasks that probably should have been done by support staff. As a public defense attorney, you have to take the cases that are assigned to you, so your docket can be really high, and you may not have ever met the client before going to court. You have multiple clients on the docket that day. Usually, about ten, twenty, thirty—it’s a lot. And it’s a lot of keeping straight about who’s charged with what, so again you have to look at the file, know who that person is before you to go talk to [the judge]. And sometimes you don’t remember.

Gate: What is the most difficult part of your job?

Carr: There’s not one thing—it’s a bunch of things that you juggle, and you hope you can juggle all of them. There are so many things that could be done to make it easier. There could be more support staff, there could be more attorneys, there could be fewer cases, and there could be more social services in place that you can easily have access to. A lot of my clients, I would say probably nine out of ten clients probably had either a substance abuse issue or a mental health issue or both. Every case is different and every case has its own challenge. Always. There’s never an easy case. A lot of times you’re just so limited on what you can do that you’re just not doing service to your client.

Gate: A study in New Orleans showed that part-time public defenders could only spend seven minutes per case. An investigation by the ACLU in Fresno, CA found that some attorneys had as many as one thousand cases per year. What do you think of those statistics?

Carr: If you only spend seven minutes per case, that is malpractice. No attorney should ever, ever work under those circumstances. I really hope that is not the case. One thousand cases per year, that wouldn’t surprise me, unfortunately. There were times when I was juggling three hundred cases at once . . . You can open and shut a lot of cases pretty quickly if you’re lucky. But that is dependent on the prosecutor a lot of times. One of the more frustrating things about working in St. Louis City is that getting police reports from the prosecutor is very difficult. It would often take months—they were not complete when you did get them, and you had to request a whole bunch of other stuff when you did get them. The burnout for public defenders is really high. Because after a while you just can’t do it anymore without completely working constantly. You have no time for family, or to relax, and you have to do that. And that’s a hard thing. You just kind of get to the point where it’s never-ending.

Gate: Do you think the way the system is currently set up now is unsustainable?

Carr: Yes. Eventually. No one wants to spend tax money on lawyers for people who are criminals or who they think are criminals, who they see as unworthy of their time and money and resources. That is the biggest problem. The criminal justice system in the United States, while definitely not perfect, is what it is. Unfortunately, money can buy you a lot, and that’s true in the criminal justice system . . . Unfortunately, we’re not doing anybody any favors by keeping it the way it is. Something has got to change. There are times when the benefits are outweighed by all the other things—the stress, the number of cases, the feeling that whatever happened, it was just never-ending. I would close one case and then get three more. And you will always mentally take it with you. You will always think about that client that maybe you could have done something more for. If I just had a little more time, I could have done this. You will always think about that.

The image featured in this article is licensed under Creative Commons. The original image can be found here

Maddie Witters


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