ATL has been providing in-depth coverage of firm layoffs, but we haven’t written much about public defenders suffering the same fate. With state budgets experiencing big squeezes, public defenders’ offices across the country are getting downsized, while their caseloads are getting upsized.
We wrote about layoffs in Kentucky, Minnesota, Florida, and Georgia back in July. In at least seven states, “public defenders’ offices are refusing to take on cases or have sued to limit them,” says the New York Times in an editorial today. It suggests that the constitutional right to counsel in state criminal proceedings is “hanging by a tattered thread:”
In a disturbing example of legal triage, a Florida judge ruled in September that the public defenders’ office in Miami-Dade County could refuse to represent many poor defendants arrested on lesser felony charges so that its lawyers could provide a better defense for other clients. Behind the ruling were some chastening statistics: Over the past three years, the average number of felony cases handled by each lawyer rose from 367 annually to nearly 500. Misdemeanor case loads rose from 1,380 to 2,225.
Public defenders’ offices all over the country are reporting similar problems. The immediate result is that innocent defendants may feel pressure to plead guilty. There also is an increased risk of wrongful conviction, which means that the real offenders would go free.
The NYT recommends meeting the budget shortfall by increasing the state registration fees for lawyers and expanding pro bono representation by the private bar.
Another out-of-the-box solution would be to get rid of all those pesky drug laws.
Remember to send in all of your layoffs stories and worries to email@example.com.
Hard Times and the Right to Counsel [New York Times]