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June 26, 2012

Washington struggling with the high costs of keep defender case loads from being too high

This interesting new AP article from Washington, headlined "Limit on public-defenders' caseloads puts strain on cities," reports on the practical challenges confronting a state that is trying reasonably to limit caseload for public defenders. Here are the details:

Officials in cities across Washington state say that even as they're trying to find ways to cut budgets, new guidelines from the state Supreme Court will force them to cough up more money for people who are accused of crimes but can't afford their own attorneys.

By a 7-2 vote this month, the justices adopted new case limits for public defenders — lawyers appointed to represent poor defendants. The standards say that beginning in September 2013, public defenders should not handle more than 300 to 400 misdemeanor cases or 150 felony cases a year, limits designed to make sure the lawyers have enough time to devote to their clients and ensure those defendants are getting their constitutional right to an attorney.

The caseloads have been especially high in city courts that handle misdemeanors, with public defenders sometimes taking on 1,000 or more cases annually. Now, city officials busy preparing next year's budgets basically have two options: Provide more money to law firms that represent poor defendants or charge fewer people with crimes....

Some city attorneys and public defenders share another concern that instead of paying more for public defense, cities will grant contracts to less experienced, cheaper lawyers or those willing to certify that they're meeting the standards even when they're not.

The state Bar Association had previously set similar caseload limits, but they were little enforced. The Supreme Court's adoption gives them new teeth, and requires lawyers who represent indigent clients to certify quarterly that they're meeting the standards....

The high court acknowledged the financial burden the ruling would place on cities and counties but said the move is essential in guaranteeing that everyone has adequate legal representation. The workloads of public defenders have long been an issue. The cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon are being sued by the American Civil Liberties Union of Washington, which says the two lawyers hired to handle misdemeanor cases took on more than 2,100 cases in 2010 alone, and rarely if ever met with their clients or investigated cases.

U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said evidence suggests that the appointment of public defenders in those cities is "little more than a sham." The cities deny that the plaintiffs' rights were violated and said that even if the public defenders were incompetent or overworked, the cities aren't liable....

"If a case is important enough to prosecute, it's important enough to defend, and the Constitution says they have to be defended competently," says Bob Boruchowitz, director of the Defender Initiative at Seattle University Law School. "It's long past time for everybody in the criminal justice system to stop tolerating the unfair treatment of poor people."...

In Yakima, City Attorney Jeff Cutter is thinking about changing the way his office files charges. Instead of having police officers charge people with misdemeanors, the officers would send their case files to the City Attorney's Office, which would then determine which cases should be prosecuted. That would cut the number of cases being filed overall, but could increase the work for his prosecutors.

June 26, 2012 at 09:37 PM | Permalink

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Comments

Don't we have a crapload of unemployed lawyers about? Put them to work!

Posted by: NickS | Jun 27, 2012 9:21:08 AM

hmm

"The caseloads have been especially high in city courts that handle misdemeanors, with public defenders sometimes taking on 1,000 or more cases annually. Now, city officials busy preparing next year's budgets basically have two options: Provide more money to law firms that represent poor defendants or charge fewer people with crimes...."

Here's a silly thought. Since we are talking about MISDEMEANORS...what say we take a day or too and go though the list of those crimes and DUMP every other once from the books!

Posted by: rodsmith | Jun 27, 2012 3:23:48 PM

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