System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense

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Justice Policy Institute

Public defense systems across the United States are overburdened, according to this new report from the Justice Policy Institute.  This new report also considers how some of the public defense systems affect county and state budgets, along with the lives of those behind bars, the impact of the system on families and the challenges facing those who are re-entering communities after serving time.

The study looks at why public defenders often do not have enough time to conduct extensive and thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients – many of whom are low-income people of color – and how that contributes to disparities in the criminal justice system.

According to the report, 73 percent of county-based public defender offices lacked the necessary number of attorneys to meet caseload standards. 23 percent of the offices had less than half of the attorneys needed to meet caseload standards.

In the United States, only 12 percent of county public defender offices with more than 5,000 cases per year had enough lawyers to meet caseload standards. About 60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases because of excessive caseloads, despite national standard recommendations that attorneys handle no more than a set number of cases per year.

To ensure a more fair and effective justice system that guarantees quality representation, reduces wasteful spending practices and decreases the overuse of incarceration, the report makes several key recommendations.

One is integrating a holistic and community-based approach to public defense. The report notes that such practices can help address the root causes of justice system involvement and prevent future involvement by treating the whole client.  This can save money on defense, improve public safety and have a general positive impact on communities and people, the report states.

Another recommendation is to collect better data and conduct more empirical evaluations on the impact of public defense systems on communities, people and criminal justice. Data can help policymakers and other stakeholders make informed decisions on policies and other matters involving the public defense system.

Additional recommendations include involving public defenders and affected communities in the policy-making process and actively seeking the voices and perspectives of people who have used the public defender services to gain a better understanding of the realities of various systems and the implications these have on people who use them.

For the full, free 46-page report click here.