Crime and Justice  
Most US Public Defender Programs Exceed Recommended Caseload Limits

By Suzette Lohmeyer
September 28, 2010

Public_Defender.jpg

The majority of state and county public defender programs do not have adequate resources to work their caseloads, according to two new reports from the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The reports are based on the 2007 Census of Public Defender Offices, which collected data on public defender office staffing, caseloads, expenditures, standards/guidelines and attorney training offices across the country. The BJS found that the majority of offices nationwide exceeded the maximum recommended number of cases per attorney.

In 27 states and the District of Columbia, pubic defender programs are administered at the local level and funded either by counties or a combination of county and state money. Twenty two states have "state-based" public defender programs, which are funded and administered by a central state office. Maine is the only state with no public defender program.

Among the 22 state-based programs nationwide, 13 of the 17 programs that reported complete caseload data lacked enough attorneys to work the caseloads, the study found.

Roughly one in four county-based programs had enough lawyers to handle the number of cases, leaving three quarters short.

The BJS used the National Advisory Commission's numeric caseload standard when evaluating whether a program had the necessary number of attorneys.

Use the interactive graph below to compare state expenditures on public defender programs:

State, county, and local offices also lacked staff support such as paralegals, investigators, indigency screeners and clerical staff, according to the reports.

The day after the release of the two reports, the U.S. Department of Justice's Office of Justice Programs announced nearly $10 million effort to hire and keep attorneys and staff, according to the press release.

"The ability to attract and retain qualified, talented attorneys is a pressing challenge faced by our criminal justice system," said Laurie O. Robinson, assistant attorney general for OJP. "With investments in initiatives such as the John R. Justice program, OJP is helping jurisdictions ensure communities are protected and the fundamental rights of citizenry are upheld."

(State Public Defender Programs, 2007 (PDF), County-based and Local Public Defender Offices, 2007 (PDF)

Suzette Lohmeyer is a staff writer and producer for State of the USA.

Data visualization by Anthony Calabrese of State of the USA.

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