Public defenders are underpaid and overworked. They are a crucial aspect of our criminal justice system, but they are constantly overlooked. This fact has numerous negative effects on the citizens of our nation.
One of the more pressing issues regarding public defenders is the pretrial defendants sitting behind bars because of the lack of counsel provided for them. These indigent defendants are languishing in jail and the state is not doing enough to help. These overburdened and understaffed offices are ethically required to decline cases because the few public defenders they have would not be able to put their focus towards such a magnitude of cases. The issue with this is that the 6th amendment guarantees every American citizen the right to proper counsel, but we do not have enough public defenders for all these cases. Judges are required to uphold their oath of office by ensuring defendants are not denied their constitutional right to counsel but public defenders can not adequately defend that many people. This raises the question; How can this be fixed? I believe that the only way this crisis can be helped is if lawmakers step in and attempt to fix what’s so clearly broken.
A clear example of this crisis in action is the case brought up against Rhonda Lindquist, who is responsible for leading the state public defender’s office in Montana. Rhonda Lindquist was fined $8,500 and held in contempt of court. The judge ruled that their office was denying citizens 6th amendment rights by turning away cases. Lindquist attempted to achieve funding from the state for the purpose of hiring more public defenders, but the lawmakers of our country were unresponsive. She had no choice but to decline to take these cases because of how overrun they were, and the judge had no choice but to uphold his oath of office.
Oregon and New Mexico are short roughly 1300 and 600 public defenders. Oregon and New Mexico are also overloaded with more than 65,000 and 40,000 cases per year. There has also been litigation in 14 states regarding the issue of public defense. These numbers are outrageous and unacceptable. The public defenders themselves are not the problem. The problem lies with the state and the lawmakers who are not properly addressing this important issue. About 4 in 5 defendants in criminal cases cannot afford lawyers of their own and it is their constitutional right to be provided with proper counsel.
Democratic Attorney General Eric Holder stated that he “frequently witnessed the devastating consequences of inadequate representation.” On the other hand, the Republican American Legislative Exchange Council adopted a formal resolution stating that public defense “must be included as an equal and valued partner in the criminal justice system.” This requires adequate funding which is agreed upon by members of both parties.
There are many different ways in which lawmakers could attempt to solve this issue. They could create independent agencies to overview public defense. These agencies could create and enforce standards for effective representation. Agencies could also manage workloads, supervision, and performance. Lawmakers could also provide information about police misconduct and prosecutorial misconduct to defense counsel. Prosecutors are required to overturn exculpatory evidence to defense counsel when carrying out cases but violations of this law are all too common. This information would prevent law enforcement officials with a history of abusing their power and prosecutors who do not fulfill their ethical obligations from continuing to do so.
If we do not attempt to solve this crisis our criminal defense system will continue to be flawed. Those with the power to help need to step up and help fix this issue before it begins to tear our justice system apart.
If you have a case in the system that needs representation, contact the attorneys at Brandy Austin Law, PLLC for help.