Washington, D.C. – (September 12, 2023) – A comprehensive new report by a team of attorneys and researchers from nationally-known organizations like the RAND Corporation, the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association and the Law Office of Lawyer Hanlon has found that public defense attorneys are being forced to handle far too many cases each year, making it extremely difficult for them to provide adequate and constitutionally-guaranteed legal representation to people accused of crimes.
Ethics rules require lawyers to limit their workloads to a level that ensures they are capable of giving clients adequate representation, but the report found that many public defense attorneys across the country are taking on too many cases to actually do so. The researchers made a systematic study of the 50-year-old guidelines which are used to estimate the maximum number of cases that defense attorneys should handle each year and found that they’re significantly outdated and inapplicable. Since the guidelines haven’t been updated in decades, defense attorneys handling cases involving complex forensic data or technology are being asked to juggle the same number of clients as their predecessors in the 1970s.
Researchers behind the report developed new consensus-based standards for estimating how many cases public defenders should take on, and show that adopting the new guidelines would reduce caseloads and allow lawyers to devote more time to each of their clients.
“Public defense attorneys with excessive caseloads cannot give appropriate time and attention to each client,” said Malia Brink, a co-author of the report and leading criminal justice reform advocate and attorney. “A justice system burdened by that form of triage denies all people who rely on it — victims, witnesses, defendants, and their families and communities— equal justice.”
The earlier guidelines, known as the NAC standards, effectively recommended that public defense attorneys devote an average of 13.9 hours to each felony case and 5.2 hours to each misdemeanor case. Under the new guidelines, public defense providers would plan on their attorneys devoting 35 hours to each felony case and 22.3 hours to each misdemeanor case – hours that more accurately reflect what it takes to provide competent legal representation in a modern world that includes social media, cell phones, surveillance cameras, and body cameras.
“This is a watershed moment for both the nation’s indigent defense system and America’s entire criminal legal system — but only if these standards are comprehensively implemented over a five-year period,” said Stephen F. Hanlon, one of the report’s authors and the executive director of the newly formed Quality Defense Alliance (QDA), which is devoted to ensuring that the guidelines are put in place across the country.
The QDA notched its first win earlier this year in Oregon, where the state supreme court vacated a lower court ruling that ordered a public defender with an excessive workload to represent a defendant. Hanlon says the QDA is poised to file similar lawsuits in other states where public defenders are juggling too many cases to provide adequate defense, a pervasive problem throughout the country. To take two examples flagged in the report, public defenders in rural St. Clair County, Missouri, were handling 350 felony cases per lawyer each year in 2022, while those in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, were juggling more than 300 felonies per year. These figures are more than double the number of cases recommended under even the old, outdated guidelines.
“Public defenders and other providers of indigent defense grapple with an overwhelming caseload that exceeds the reasonable capacity for effective representation, but the available data about the magnitude of this issue has been inadequate and outdated,” said ABA President Mary Smith. “This report — which builds on earlier ABA initiatives like the recent rollout of 10 principles for improving the public defense system — offers stakeholders a roadmap for how to genuinely ensure equitable justice for every individual.”
“The existing standards are out of date, and public defenders often face impossible trade-offs when trying to adequately defend their clients,” said Ezekiel Edwards, vice president of criminal justice at Arnold Ventures and a former public defender. “The report is an important contribution to the pressing conversation about how to improve the system for public defenders and justice-impacted people alike.”
The report was drafted by Nicholas M. Pace, a senior social scientist for the RAND Corporation; Cynthia G. Lee, a principal court research associate at the National Center for State Courts; Malia Brink, a practicing attorney and legal researcher who led the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense’s participation in the project; and Stephen F. Hanlon of the Law Office of Lawyer Hanlon, who was ABA SCLAID’s project director on seven state-level public defense workload studies. It was supported by Arnold Ventures, a philanthropic organization dedicated to tackling some of the most pressing problems in the United States.
The report, under embargo until Tuesday, September 12th at 12:01 AM, can be found here.
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