September 17, 2014

Public defender caseload tracking shows how systems are overburdened, panelists say

Although it is well-established that indigent defense programs throughout the United States are overburdened and underfunded, determining just how overwhelmed they are often requires relying on anecdotal evidence and outdated caseload standards. At the American Bar Association’s Ninth Annual Summit on Indigent Defense Improvement, panelists discussed the value of caseload tracking and improved empirical tools for determining public defender workloads, as well as how these elements can be used to persuade skeptical legislators to provide more funding.

“The Missouri Project: A Study of the Missouri Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards,” introduced at the summit, is one such tool. The report, soon to be available on the ABA website, quantitatively analyzes the workload of Missouri public defenders.

The report is a collaborative effort by the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, the Missouri State Public Defender System and RubinBrown, one of the nation’s leading accounting and consulting firms. “The Missouri Project” examines the amount of time required for lawyers to provide reasonably effective representation to their clients in light of prevailing professional norms.

ABA President James R. Silkenat said the report “documents the crisis in public defense, clearly showing that lawyers in public defender programs are being asked to carry outlandish, excessive workloads that prevent them from adequately representing their clients and making a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel recognized by the United States Supreme Court.”

The Missouri State Public Defender Commission based its budget request on the results of the RubinBrown report, said Stephen Hanlon, chair of the Indigent Defense Advisory Group of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

“More than any other public defender organization in the country, the [commission] knows (1) what its lawyers are doing on their cases, (2) what they should be doing on their cases and (3) what they are not doing on their cases because of their excessive caseloads,” Hanlon said.

Panelists George Yeannakis of the Washington State Office of Public Defense and James Bethke of the Texas Indigent Defense Commission also described the caseload tracking systems in their states.