Experts: Public defender system needs upgrade
Mar 14, 2013 (Messenger-Inquirer - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- Experts who have studied the role of public defenders nationally said Wednesday that more needs to be done to improve legal representation for indigent people who are charged with crimes.
Monday is the 50th anniversary of Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision where justices ruled a person who cannot afford to hire an attorney has a constitutional right to counsel when charged with a crime.
The case was brought to the Supreme Court by Clarence Earl Gideon, an indigent man who had to defend himself against burglary charges in Florida, after he was told the state only appointed defense attorneys to indigent defendants who were facing the death penalty.
Ed Monahan, public advocate for the state Department of Public Advocacy, said Wednesday that although Kentucky is ahead of other states in terms of having a division of full-time public defenders, the state still falls short in living up to the Gideon decision's requirement to provide legal representation to indigent defendants.
"We stand out as having a public defender structure and leadership through the years that is dedicated to providing the counsel Gideon mandates," Monahan said. "But what we don't have are the resources. We are far from reaching (Gideon's) mandate." On Wednesday afternoon, the Ford Foundation held a teleconference with reporters to discuss how the states have met the requirements of the Gideon decision.
The Ford Foundation is a national nonprofit organization that focuses on poverty and justice issues, according to the group's website.
Jonathan Rapping, a former public defender who helped rebuild the New Orleans public defender office after Hurricane Katrina, and the founder of Gideon's Promise -- an Atlanta training center for public defenders -- said funding and cultural attitudes toward indigent defense make it difficult for poor defendants to receive adequate representation in criminal court.
"States simply haven't invested in public defense," Rapping said. "Public defenders routinely carry two, three or four times the (American Bar Association) standard" for felony cases.
Rapping said the ABA recommends public defenders handle no more than 150 felony cases per year. In addition, the ABA recommends a public defender work no more 400 misdemeanor cases and no more than 200 juvenile cases in a year. According to a 2011 ABA report, those recommendations were put forward in 1973 without any type of study to determine how many cases a public defender should handle.
In the Owensboro public defender office, the 11 staff attorneys had 5,254 new criminal cases assigned to them in fiscal year 2012-13, in addition to the open cases the attorneys were already working from previous years.
In 2011, the Owensboro office -- which also covers Ohio, Hancock and Breckinridge counties -- had an average case load of 461 new cases per attorney. In Fiscal year 2012-13, public defenders in the Owensboro office had 544 new cases assigned to them, said Jerry Johnson, supervising attorney for the Owensboro office.
Case loads hurt an indigent defendant's right to counsel, Johnson said.
"Sometimes, we have to triage cases," Johnson said. "We do the best we can with the resources we're provided, but obviously we have too many cases for the personnel we have." Rapping said states fund public defenders differently, either through the state legislature or through counties or courts.
"What they all have in common is very little incentive to pay for public defenders," Rapping said. The federal government provides $500 million annually to states for criminal justice, but less than 1 percent of that total goes to public defenders, Rapping said.
"The federal government has a very important role to play," Rapping said.
Federal justice dollars should be allocated to states that are willing to reform their public defender systems, such as setting case load standards, Rapping said.
Karen Houppert, a reporter who has written for the New York Times, Washington Post and Village Voice, and who has also written about the nation's public defender system, said overwhelmed public defender's offices will plead out more cases than other offices.
"If they plead a lot of cases, they don't have time to take them to trial," Houppert said.
Monahan said public defenders save counties and the state money; when a public defender appears at a defendant's first court hearing, "we save counties money by getting people out (of jail) who are low to moderate risk." Public defenders also save the state money when they can recommend an alternative sentence, Monahan said.
"If there was a modest additional investment in us, we could save counties and the state" additional dollars, Monahan said. "My belief from over three decades of experience is the courts don't have sufficient funding, prosecutors don't have sufficient funding and we're underfunded.
"We want to represent every client we have they way we would represent our daughter or son," Monahan said. "The lack of money shouldn't determine the level of representation one gets." James Mayse, 691-7303, firstname.lastname@example.org ___ (c)2013 Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.) Visit the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.) at www.messenger-inquirer.com Distributed by MCT Information Services