Crime in America.Net
Selected findings from a new Department of Justice study on public defender offices:
One in four county-based public defender offices reported a sufficient number of attorneys to handle the incoming caseload. Nearly a quarter of all offices reported less than half the number of litigating attorneys required to meet professional caseload guidelines for the number of cases received.
Four of the 17 state public defender programs had a sufficient number of attorneys to meet caseload standards.
We’ve been harping on the budget situation within America’s criminal justice system since the beginning of this site. Many leaders within criminal justice circles are questioning their ability to fulfill basic functions.
But nothing (and we do mean nothing) compares with the traditional lack of funding for public defense.
Many may care if police agencies stop responding to homes for burglaries or if parole and probation agencies carry huge caseloads.
But few care about public defense. We fund public defense because the law forces us to do it but that doesn’t mean we have to adequately fund them (according to many).
Unfortunately, that’s a dangerous opinion. Two of us are former police officers and we believe that the overwhelming number of law enforcement officers are decent people trying to do an honorable job.
Yet there is a significant minority of officers who are either sloppy or malicious as to their application of the law and it’s simply too easy to make an arrest of someone from a poor neighborhood for the wrong reasons.
If our sense of being an American is defined by protection from government abuse, the current state of public defense in America is a concern.
PUBLIC DEFENDER OFFICES NATIONWIDE RECEIVED NEARLY 5.6 MILLION INDIGENT DEFENSE CASES IN 2007
WASHINGTON – Approximately 1,000 public defender offices in 49 states and the District of Columbia received nearly 5.6 million cases and employed over 15,000 litigating attorneys in 2007, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in the Office of Justice Programs, U.S. Department of Justice, announced today. BJS examined public defender office caseloads using the National Advisory Commission’s (NAC) numeric caseload standard and found that the majority of offices exceeded the maximum recommended number of cases per attorney.
The findings are based on two reports released by BJS examining public defender offices across the country. One report examines the 530 offices in 27 states and the District of Columbia that are funded and administered at the county or local jurisdictional level. The other report examines public defender programs in the 22 states administering and overseeing the provision of indigent defense in all jurisdictions across the state. The Census of Public Defender Offices, the data source for both reports, is the first study to collect information from all public defender offices nationwide that provide general trial representation for indigent defendants.
The 530 county-based public defender offices received more than four million indigent defense cases in 2007, accounting for nearly three-quarters of the public defender cases received nationwide. These offices employed about 10,700 litigating attorneys. Based on the numeric caseload guidelines, about one in four county-based offices reported a sufficient number of attorneys to handle the incoming caseload. Nearly a quarter of all offices reported less than half the number of litigating attorneys required to meet professional caseload guidelines for the number of cases received.
The 22 state public defender programs employed 4,300 litigating attorneys to handle the 1.5 million indigent defense cases received in 2007. Four of the 17 programs reporting complete caseload data had a sufficient number of attorneys to meet caseload standards. Across both county-based offices and state programs, misdemeanor and ordinance violation cases accounted for the largest percentage of cases received. Felony non-capital cases were the second largest type of case received.
County-based public defender offices in the 25 states with death penalty statutes received over 1,200 death penalty eligible cases and handled more than 900 cases in which prosecutors filed for the death penalty in 2007. Public defender offices in these 25 states spent a combined total of nearly $30 million providing capital case representation. In 2007, state public defender programs in 11 states with the death penalty received over 430 capital cases and handled more than 200 cases in which prosecutors filed for the death penalty. The eleven programs spent a combined total of $11.3 million providing capital case representation.
The majority of county-based public defender offices and state defender programs employed fewer than the recommended number of support staff, such as paralegals, investigators, indigency screeners, and clerical staff. County-based offices employed a median of seven full-time equivalent litigating attorneys; fewer than 10 percent of these offices met the guideline of at least one investigator for every three litigating attorneys. State public defender programs employed a median of 163 litigating attorneys. Eighteen of the 20 state programs which reported support staff data had fewer than the recommended ratio of investigators to attorneys.
The median entry-level salary for assistant public defenders ranged from $42,000 to $45,000 in county-based public defender offices and from $46,000 to $58,000 in state-based programs. In county-based public defender offices, the median length of service for assistant public defenders was six years and the median attrition rate was less than one percent in 2007. In state-based defender programs, the median length of service for assistant public defenders was nine years and the median attrition rate was 10 percent in 2007.
The reports, State Public Defender Programs, 2007 (NCJ 228229) and County-based and Local Public Defender Offices, 2007 (NCJ 231175), were written by BJS statisticians Donald Farole, Jr. and Lynn Langton. Following publication, the reports can be found at http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov.
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