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January 14, 2022

ABA SCLAID finds resource deficiencies in its workload study of New Mexico public defense system

WASHINGTON, Jan. 14, 2022 — The American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense (SCLAID) and the Seattle-based accounting and consulting firm Moss Adams LLP released findings today of a joint study of workloads of state public defense attorneys in New Mexico, showing a systemic deficiency exists for the residents of the state who need public defense.

The principal findings of the study are: 

  • At a consistent annual workload, the state’s Law Offices of the Public Defender (LOPD) is deficient 602 full-time-equivalent (FTE) attorneys for its adult criminal and juvenile caseloads.

  • In other words, LOPD has only 33% of the FTE attorneys needed to provide reasonably effective assistance of counsel pursuant to prevailing professional norms in New Mexico to its adult criminal and juvenile clients.

The Delphi Method, used by Moss Adams, is a reliable and structured research method developed by the Rand Corporation in the 1960s. It has been employed across a diverse array of industries, including the legal system, to produce professional consensus opinions, as well as past ABA SCLAID reports. 

This is SCLAID’s sixth public defense workload study since 2014, when the inaugural report on Missouri was released. Other states in which studies have been completed include Louisiana, Colorado, Rhode Island and Indiana. A similar study for Oregon is expected to be released soon.

“Once again, our study of a state public defender system demonstrates that public defenders are daily put in grave jeopardy of violating their professional responsibility to provide competent counsel,” ABA President Reginald Turner said. “This time it is in New Mexico. When this occurs, ABA policy and well-established legal principles support public defenders in assertively seeking relief from excessive workloads. Courts, in turn, should provide relief when excessive caseloads threaten to lead to representation lacking in quality or to the breach of professional obligations. To do otherwise, not only harms individual defendants but our entire justice system.” 

In 1963, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Gideon v. Wainwright extended the right to counsel to felony cases in state criminal courts and, subsequently, the Supreme Court extended the right to counsel to misdemeanor cases ending with the defendant being imprisoned. The ABA believes these studies, besides suggesting that excessive public defender workloads are endemic, call into serious question the accuracy of the phrase “equal justice under law” engraved on the front of the building of the U.S. Supreme Court. 

The study was funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation and the New Mexico legislature. The full report can be found here.

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