One Lawyer, 194 Felony Cases, and No Time

…In Colorado, Missouri and Rhode Island, they found that the typical public defender had two to three times the workload they should in order to provide an adequate defense. In Louisiana, defenders have almost five times the workload they should.

…Mr. Talaska would have needed almost 10,000 hours, or five work-years, to handle the 194 active felony cases he had as of that April day, not to mention the dozens more he would be assigned that year. (The analysis did not include one death-penalty case on his roster, the most time-consuming type of case.)

…“Most [public defender] offices don’t have paralegals, law clerks, or full-time investigators.” Lawyers are expected to do it all.

…Handed a thick roster of new defendants just minutes before court started, Mr. Marro, a public defender who recently retired after 33 years, shuffled through stacks of pastel arrest reports, prioritizing cases like a triage doctor.

…Counseling his new clients for the first time as they faced the magistrate or judge, Mr. Marro raised a manila folder for privacy as he whispered into their ear details of what was happening, and what they should say. The lucky ones got five minutes of his time. Others might have gotten a minute.

…Some days the courtroom is so full that defendants overflow into an additional courtroom, where there is no public defender. Those arrestees sometimes agree, without any legal advice, to plea deals that can have a profound impact on their lives.

……The numbers alone might seem to violate the Constitution. Poor defendants in the United States have the right to a competent lawyer, and hundreds of thousands of defendants rest their hopes on someone like Mr. Talaska.

But there has never been any guarantee that those lawyers would have enough time to handle their cases. That’s why the study cited above, which looked at the workloads of public defenders, is significant.

…The time shortage also means that public defenders almost never take a case to a trial. Across the country, 94 percent of convictions in state courts are from plea bargains.

…The reformers say decriminalizing more offenses related to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness would also free up public defenders to spend more time on serious cases.

One Lawyer, 194 Felony Cases, and No Time – The New York Times

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