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January 01, 2016

Sua Sponte: A Judge Comments

A judge argues that American justice is overwhelmingly fair despite defender caseloads.

Hon. Sean C. Gallagher

“Meet-and-Plead: The Inevitable Consequence of Crushing Defender Workloads” is arguably a sweeping indictment of our criminal justice system. It asserts that the rights of defendants are being compromised and that public defenders are being forced to commit ethical violations due to excessive workloads. While it’s hard to argue with the authors’ passionate call for more and better legal representation for the accused, the reality is that justice dispensed in American courts is overwhelmingly fair. Characterizing it as a “meet-and-plead” system is an over simplification that simply doesn’t hold up.

To the extent excessive caseloads exist, they do so not only for public defenders but for prosecutors and trial judges as well. I remember such dockets from my days as both a trial prosecutor and a municipal court judge in Cleveland. In a perfect world, it would be great to have reduced caseloads and greater time working with clients, but we don’t live in a perfect world. Indigent defense funding is rarely a priority for the other branches of government. Even when compelled to offer better assistance of counsel through impact litigation, the net effect is minimal. Public defenders will still be overworked.

Not all crimes are equal, and not all charges follow the same path to resolution. The reality in most jurisdictions is that so-called “meet-and-plead” justice is generally limited to a class of relatively minor offenses usually involving “quality of life” crimes. This is not to suggest competent representation isn’t important in these instances, but the facts of these cases are generally known and readily apparent. Even with the focus solely on the rights of defendants, the so-called “meet-and-plead” scenarios don’t significantly affect the justice dispensed in American courts. In some instances, the process may actually improve the justice delivered.

Open discovery and computerization of police reports have given public defenders a far clearer picture of their clients’ situations at an earlier stage in the process than ever before. Attaining credit for time served without probation is often a better scenario for a defendant than a delay involving a bond the accused can’t make or a subsequent indictment for a felony by an overly zealous prosecutor.

Most public defenders are well versed in the law and potential defenses for “quality of life” crimes. They know the relevant case law and Fourth Amendment limitations on police conduct. While it is admittedly limited, most have a brief opportunity to discuss the facts and any possible resolution with the client in advance of the hearing. Motions generally aren’t filed, but if a viable issue is identified, most defenders will continue the case and file the appropriate motion. Lastly, prosecutors in these scenarios are often more than willing to deal and resolve cases with a reasonable, if not significant, reduction. While overburdened, these public defenders are not violating the ethical code or compromising their client’s rights.

The truth is that even if we were able to pay for a private lawyer for every alleged offender at the moment of arrest, the percentage of pleas to trial, or guilty to not guilty, involving this class of offenses would not change dramatically. This is not to suggest that better access to counsel wouldn’t better serve defendants, but rather that the outcome of most of these cases wouldn’t appreciably change.

Felony offenses or misdemeanor offenses of violence are rarely resolved through “meet-and-plead.” In most jurisdictions, these involve a protracted process of resolution that certainly affords the defendant a competent level of representation.

The real concern about overworked public defenders and the resulting “take-a-plea” approach to justice is that the innocent could be wrongly convicted. Even I must admit that the best system of justice can and does have its failings. If there is one part of the article I wholeheartedly embrace, it is the call to increase the responsibility of prosecutors and trial judges when involved with expedited justice. While policy standards and caseload protocols outlined in the article are a good benchmark, justice can’t end at the hands of a purportedly overworked public defender. Protecting defendants from the prospect of a wrongful conviction must also become the province of the trial judge and the prosecutor. When the facts are murky or there are viable questions about a charge, prosecutors and trial judges have to apply the brakes to ensure the system is doing its best to get things right.

No doubt we will continue to struggle to find an acceptable balance between efficiency and justice. That will be a never-ending challenge for public defenders, but they still provide the best counsel of any system of justice in the world, even when overworked and underpaid. While we have to be vigilant about workloads, we also have to accept the reality that things are not going to dramatically change. We’re going to have to continue to do more with less but find a way to make everyone involved more responsible for the outcome.

Hon. Sean C. Gallagher

The author is a judge for the Court of Appeals of Ohio, Eighth Appellate District.