In Miami Dade County, an average case load for a public defender is 500 felonies and 225 misdemeanors according to democracynow.org. In the United States, an estimated 80 percent of people who are facing charges are poor and rely on court appointed counsel.
The perception of these attorneys is negative. Stereotypes depict them as emotionless souls whose goal is to aid in the incarceration of those who can’t afford an attorney. The term “Public Pretenders” or “Dump Truck” is used by defendants and citizens who have negative feelings towards public defenders or defense attorneys.
However, it’s imperative that we ask is the reputation that public defenders are given fair?
The Evolution of the Right to Counsel
Contrary to popular belief, the right to counsel didn’t always mean an attorney would be provided to those who can’t afford one. It wasn’t until 1938 that the case Johnson vs. Zerbst ruled that legal representation must be provided for those without the means to obtain an attorney. However, this ruling only applied to federal cases.
Four years later, Betts vs. Brady ruled that an ordinary person can represent himself unless he had a mental or physical deficiency, the case was unusually complicated, or the case involved special circumstances. This left defendants in state and local cases to defend themselves.
Gideon vs Wainwright
In 1961, Clarence Earl Gideon was charged with breaking into a pool room with the intent to commit a misdemeanor. Because he could not afford an attorney, he requested that the court appoint him one. His plea was denied due to the Betts vs. Brady (1942) ruling. Gideon represented himself and was found guilty.
Later, Gideon filed a petition stating his constitutional rights had been denied when the courts refused to provide him counsel. Using law books he found in prison, he drafted a petition to the U.S Supreme Court for a writ of certiorari.
The supreme court unanimously ruled in favor of Gideon.
“The due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment required that the Sixth Amendment, which guarantees indigent defendants the Right to Counsel in federal criminal proceedings, be interpreted to include indigent defendants in state criminal trials.”
Gideon was later retried with a court appointed attorney and was found not guilty.
The State of the Public Defender
The differences in the prosecutors and the public defenders office are vast, and can lead one to wonder if the legal system really cares about providing well-equipped attorneys for those who can’t afford one.
We’ll begin with differences in salaries. For prosecutors:
”The average annual salary for assistant prosecutors ranged from $33,460 for entry-level assistant prosecutors in part time offices to $108,434 for assistant prosecutors with 6 or more years of experience in offices serving jurisdictions of 1 million or more residents.”
Meanwhile public defenders:
“Minimum entry-level salaries for assistant public defenders ranged from about $37,000 to $58,000, with a median salary of $46,000 per year. More experienced (6 years or more) assistant public defenders earned a median salary between $60,000 and $78,000.”
Budgets and Employment
There are also huge differences in budgets between the two offices as well. In 2007, the prosecutors office had an operating budget of more than $5.8 billion. Public defenders expenditures in 2007 were more than $2.3 billion.
The number of attorney’s employed by the prosecutors office is more than double of that of the public defenders office. While more than 15,000 full-time attorney’s were employed by public defenders offices, and more than 34,000 were employed by the prosecutors office.
It is widely known that due to heavy caseloads, many defendants plead guilty with the advisement of their public defenders. This leads to the perception that these attorney’s do not work in the favor of their clients. However, under heavy caseloads and long hours. Can it be argued that they are doing the best with what they are given?
The statistics above show a very underfunded and understaffed public defenders office in comparison to the prosecutors offices. The budgets for these offices continue to decrease will the caseloads rise.
The American Bar Association states a public defender can competently handle 150 to 200 cases. Yet, in Miami-Dade County that number more than triples the recommendation. Some public defenders are so swamped with cases that they never even meet with their clients.
A caseload of over 700 cases, gives an attorney less than half of a day to prepare for it, and this is only if the attorney works seven days a week. During a normal 40-hour work week, it would mean about 3 minutes per case. It is almost insane to believe that any attorney can function to the best of his or her ability under these circumstances.
The blame lies once again with our government and the way the system is set up. The funds and resources set aside to aid the accused continues to decline while “crime” rises. One can argue that the legal system is currently violating the rights of citizens by supplying defendants will ill prepared attorneys with no intention to rectify the growing problem. How can a public defenders possibly continue to function under these conditions? My answer is, they can’t.
Last year public defenders in Pennsylvania and in Miami began declining new cases due to limited resources. Public Defenders in Pennsylvania filed a class-action suit for underfunding.
While these offices are declining cases and trying to obtain more resources, who suffers? The ones unable to afford legal representation. This person may have to sit in jail for an indefinite amount of time waiting on an attorney or represent themselves. Leaving more poor people to be subjected to the injustices of the legal system.
There is too much blame placed on public defenders, when in fact it is the system that needs change. If you still have doubts, take a second and explain how you would handle 725 cases in one year.
A new documentary, Gideon’s Army, aims to change the negative perceptions of public defenders by following the lives of three dedicated attorneys who are referred to as “true believers.” In the mist of low pay, heavy cases, long hours, and little resources these individuals truly fight for the rights of their clients.
Featured in the documentary is Travis Williams, a senior attorney at the Hall County Public Defenders office in Gainesville, Georgia. In a clip from the documentary, Williams expresses how he aspired to become a public defender due to the mistreatment he witnessed and received from police officers when he was growing up.
Williams works seven days a week, because in his opinion five days isn’t enough to get the job done. Out of the 24 cases he has fought, he has only lost 8. For every lost he tattoos the last name on his back.
Take a few minutes and watch this short clip from the documentary.
What do you think? Should the blame be placed on the public defenders, the system, or both. Share your thoughts in the comment section below.