January 01, 2016

Meet-and-Plead: The Inevitable Consequence of Crushing Defender Workloads

Excessive workloads have helped create a dangerous system of public defense.

Lisa C. Wood, Daniel T. Goyette, and Geoffrey T. Burkhart

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“I have great respect for public defenders. But what if the public defender has 100 cases? What if the public defender is only a public defender in name? You’ve heard [people] talk about my record as a criminal defense attorney. Let me tell you something: if I had 100 cases, I’d have to plead ’em guilty.”

—Gerry Spence, The Plight of the Public Defender, Address to the Trial Lawyers College, Dubois, Wyoming (2014).

That figure—100 cases—is troubling. Yet few public defense attorneys have only 100 cases. In Rhode Island, the average is more than 1,700 cases per year; in upstate New York, one attorney represented over 2,200 clients; and in Illinois, a public defender handled 4,000 cases during the course of a year. Litigators understand heavy workloads. But what investigation, research, or client communication could you do with 100 cases, much less 4,000? Would you ever try a case, let alone be prepared to do so?

Today, 97 percent of federal criminal defendants and about 95 percent of state criminal defendants plead guilty. This is not to say that excessive workloads alone have caused the high rate of guilty pleas. Other factors, such as changes in sentencing laws, have contributed. Nor do we vilify guilty pleas—they are a necessary option for many defendants and a vital tool for attorneys with sufficient time and resources. Rather, a practical examination of this issue shows that excessive workloads have helped create a dangerous meet-and-plead system of public defense.

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