Access to Justice and the Overworked Public Defender

By Kaitlyn Grant

https://prepaidplans.com/areas-of-law/criminal-defense/

The Sixth Amendment guarantees defendants the right to counsel when being tried for a crime.[1] As part of the United States court system, defendants are appointed an attorney by the court if they are unable to afford one on their own.[2] This court-appointed attorney serves an important role in the assurance that a defendant can use the protections provided to him by the Sixth Amendment.[3]

But what happens if the court-appointed public defender is overworked, having more cases than they are able to take on? What if there are too many cases for the public defender to provide each defendant with the quality representation that each lawyer seeks to achieve for their client? This is a problem that both public defenders and defendants are facing.[4]

Lawyers are zealous advocates for their clients.[5] As zealous advocates, lawyers play an especially important role in the criminal context, providing defense to the accused.[6] In these criminal defense cases, lawyers are tasked with protecting and defending the rights of their clients, whether or not they believe that their client is innocent or guilty. [7] They are to provide their client with quality legal advocacy, even if the defendant is unable to pay the attorney’s fees.[8] Public defenders are appointed in an effort to provide defendants with representation and to ensure that they are given a fair trial.[9]

While the Constitution provides this protection for defendants, they are not always provided with quality representation.[10] For example, some defendants have been represented by attorneys who have fallen asleep at trial or have arrived to court drunk.[11] This lack of quality representation leads to many defendants losing their chance at a fair trial.[12] Specifically, in capital cases, studies have shown that nearly 70 percent of the convictions are overturned during the appellate process due to the poor representation the defendant had when the case was first heard. [13]

The problems of ineffective defense counsel on one hand, who have come to court drunk or fallen asleep during trial, or the overworked public defenders on the other, who do not have time to add to their caseload, pose a threat to defendant’s right to a fair trial.[14] However, this isn’t a new development—rather, public defenders have been “understaffed, underfunded and overwhelmed with cases for more than 30 years.”[15]

The understaffing of defense attorneys has led to defendants taking plea deals simply because they have been in jail for a long period of time and want to get out. [16] However, while they may be out of jail, they are now left with a conviction that they may not otherwise have if they were given quality representation closer to the time of the alleged offense. [17]

The question becomes how to address this problem that is affecting more than 80% of defendants.[18] In some states, such as New York, they are planning to replace the “county-run system with a statewide public defense system by 2023.”[19] But even this approach is not an easy fix.[20] This is a complicated issue that will require society to reevaluate the system to attempt to make a necessary change. [21]

 

[1] U.S. Const. amend. VI § 2.

[2] Id.

[3]  Brian Stull, The Importance of the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel in Capital Cases, ACLU (Sept. 17, 2008), https://www.aclu.org/news/smart-justice/importance-sixth-amendment-right-counsel-capital-cases.

[4] Phil McCausland, Public Defenders Nationwide Say They’re Overworked and Underfunded, NBC News (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/public-defenders-nationwide-say-they-re-overworked-underfunded-n828111.

[5] The Right to Zealous Representation by Your Criminal Lawyer, JUSTIA (Oct. 2021), https://www.justia.com/criminal/working-with-a-criminal-lawyer/right-to-zealous-representation/.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Why We Have a Public Defense System, IDS Office of Indigent Defense Services Safeguarding Justice (2022), https://www.ncids.org/why-public-defense/.

[9] Id.

[10] Brian Stull, The Importance of the Sixth Amendment Right to Counsel in Capital Cases, ACLU (Sept. 17, 2008), https://www.aclu.org/news/smart-justice/importance-sixth-amendment-right-counsel-capital-cases.

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] See Phil McCausland, Public Defenders Nationwide Say They’re Overworked and Underfunded, NBC News (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/public-defenders-nationwide-say-they-re-overworked-underfunded-n828111.

[15] Id.

[16] Id.

[17] Id.

[18] Alexa Van Brunt, Poor People Rely on Public Defenders Who Are Too Overworked To Defend Them, The Guardian (June 2015), https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/17/poor-rely-public-defenders-too-overworked.

[19] McCausland, Public Defenders Nationwide Say They’re Overworked and Underfunded, NBC News (Dec. 11, 2017), https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/public-defenders-nationwide-say-they-re-overworked-underfunded-n828111.

[20] Id.

[21] Id.

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