Friday, June 24, 2011

Buddy, can you spare some time?

Recently a member of the Harris County defense bar penned an article taking a critical look at public defenders' offices. And, somewhat predictably, those employed by the Public Defender's Office were up in arms about the perception that indigent defendants might not be getting the legal representation they deserve.

Clay Conrad wrote that public defenders are too overworked to provide the level of representation called for. Mr. Conrad points out that the main problem facing public defenders is caseloads that are too heavy.
Overloaded defenders are forced to triage, exchanging quick pleas in some cases for the ability to fight in others. They have to decide which cases will benefit from extra attention and which will not. Cases are "pied out" without time to conduct a real investigation, interview witnesses, or even determine whether there are grounds to challenge the police version of the facts.
Per ABA Guidelines, attorneys should not handle more than 150 felonies a year. But what does it mean to handle that many felony cases a year? That works out to three felony cases a week -- each and every week. Assuming a 40-hour work week, that means just 13 hours per case. That thirteen hours includes court time, jail visits, witness interviews, research and motion drafting. It doesn't take into account trial prep and trying cases. It also doesn't take into account meetings, continuing education, lunch, vacation and sick time.

Does that sound like enough time to handle a case adequately?

The lack of time to work a case puts pressure on everyone to dispose of other cases as quickly as possible. Which cases just get the "once over" and which cases get further work? How are those decisions made? Whose lives are affected because there aren't enough hours in the day?
But it is not always easy to know which cases are the hopeless ones if all you do is read the offense report and spend a few minutes talking to the defendant and the prosecutor. Without putting in the time required to investigate the facts, the law, and the witnesses, it is unethical to recommend that a client accept a plea bargain. Maybe the offer represents the best possible result, but maybe the client is completely innocent and just too frightened to disagree.

I know many of the lawyers in the Harris County Public Defenders' Office and they are very good at what they do. They care and they want to make a difference. But idealism and energy can't make up for lack of time and money.

What happens when Harris County decides it's time to cut the budget? Indigent defendants aren't a large voting bloc in Harris County. Trim a little here. Cut a little there. At some point the ABA Guidelines will be tossed aside in the name of keeping the operation within its allotted budget. At some point there will be pressure to "work out" more cases in order to keep costs down.

It's hard to serve two masters.

1 comment:

Franklin said...

Paul, I am one of the friends you mention who work at the PD office. And of course, I speak for only myself here.

I don't think it's appropriate to characterize responses from a private listserv discussion. I think it's an unfair characterization. I expect those conversations to be private, protected from even an oblique reference in public.

Right now we're doing excellent work. No one disputes that. No one.

Are you happy with the state of indigent defense in Harris County?

Ok, I thought not. So what should be done? Is the answer NOT an integrated, holistic defender office? Really?

There's a reason every large city has a PD office. Many have more than one. They're not perfect, but a lot of them are really good. You, Clay, and most other critics completely overlook the federal defender system, which is first-rate.

You're worried about the commissioners cutting our budget in several years? That's pretty premature and esoteric.