Public defenders, who represent clients too poor to pay for a lawyer, are notoriously overworked and underfunded. “The average state public defender works about 70 percent more cases per year than is recommended by the American Bar Association,” explains David Stowman, chairman of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense. This translates into about 12 minutes per client per day. Yet one more public defender office in the state is slated to close, increasing the case loads for those who remain (MPR News, Nov 7, 2011).
Elsewhere, state boards require “that public defenders do not exceed certain case loads to represent clients ethically,” writes NOLA.com (Nov 5, 2011). The Louisiana Public Defender Board is drafting a new “restriction of service” guideline for overworked and understaffed defender offices that could result in “slowdowns in case-processing times and possibly waiting lists for attorneys.”
Same goes for prosecutors. All the recent hullabaloo about Topeka, Kansas, trying to decriminalize misdemeanor domestic violence can be attributed to lack of funding and budget cuts. The story made for sensational headlines that cast a judgmental eye upon a supposedly backward Midwestern city, but no one was looking to make spousal abuse an unpunishable crime; we were just witnessing a depressing game of hot potato between the city and the county as to who would bear the crushing burden of even more cases.
In Minnesota, Stowman says that public defenders may have to resort to representing some of their clients in court via video hookup. For some, that’s yet another terrible solution for overloaded attorneys and those they represent. “No matter how tired and overworked I feel, video lawyering with my clients will happen over my dead body,” says juvenile public defender Carrie Prentice. “I have an obligation to EVERY client to give them my best representation. Period.”