Updated public defense workload study calls for reduction in overburdened caseloads

September 12, 2023 Rob Abruzzese
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The National Public Defense Workload Study released Tuesday is shedding light on the extensive demands placed on public defenders, with leading associations now urging governments to alleviate overburdened caseloads and ensure constitutional rights to counsel.

The joint statement from the National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA), the American Council of Chief Defenders and the Black Public Defender Association urges a reduction in public-defender workloads and investment in holistic defense approaches. Their focus remains on the assurance of justice, especially for Black, Brown and Indigenous communities, which are disproportionately targeted by the legal system.

The updated study challenges the outdated 1973 standards, arguing that many jurisdictions are stretching their public defenders too thin, jeopardizing clients, their families and communities at large. Modern-day criminal defense now requires time-intensive review of evidence like police body camera footage and social media accounts, neither of which were real nearly five decades ago.

The study’s key findings highlight the varying time commitments required for different case types. High-severity felony cases, especially those with potential life sentences without the possibility of parole, necessitate an average commitment of 286 hours. In comparison, mid-severity and low-severity felonies require 57 and 35 hours, respectively. Time allocated for DUI cases can range from 19 hours to 33 hours, whereas misdemeanors typically need between 13.8 to 22.3 hours. Last, cases involving probation or parole violations average around 13.5 hours.

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Moreover, ethics rules emphasize the necessity for lawyers to manage their workloads to guarantee competent representation, an issue that becomes murkier with the lack of clear standards. As such, the new study aims to provide these standards, backing them with empirical evidence and consensus from expert criminal defense attorneys.

The research, conducted through a collaboration between the RAND Corporation, the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association’s Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense and the Lawyer Hanlon firm’s principal Stephen F. Hanlon, paints a clear picture: Existing workload standards from 1973 are outdated and fall short in modern-day defense needs.

With the 1973 standards failing to account for different felony types and treating burglaries, sexual assaults and homicides with the same weight, there’s an imminent risk of overburdening public defenders.

The updated standards integrate the lived experiences of modern defense attorneys, taking into account digital and forensic evidence and the broader obligations of a criminal defense lawyer, including advising clients on the secondary consequences of their actions.

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