Being a public defender is not easy. Thanks to heavy caseloads, a bulging and bloated criminal justice system, and a million other factors, public defenders are put in a tough spot.
Typically, a public defender has very little time to prepare before heading into court with a client. However, the U.S. Constitution guarantees people the right to an attorney – and while public defenders do the best they can with what they have, the truth is that they can walk into court unprepared to help the people they represent.
How overburdened are they?
Public defenders in Fresno County, California, for example, can work on as many as 1,000 felony cases each year.
The state guidelines, adopted from the American Bar Association’s recommendations, say that public defenders shouldn’t work on more than 150 felony cases per year.
In New Orleans, some public defenders have about 7 minutes to prepare for court. Seven minutes. Even worse, the Bureau of Justice said that 40 percent of all county-based public defender offices have no investigators on staff.
Facing a $1 million budget deficit, the Orleans Public Defenders launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money to keep up operations.
Public defenders want to help – they really do – and there are some who take their jobs extremely seriously. One public defender in Florida, threatened by a judge because he refused to waive his client’s right to a trial, ended up resigning his position after a physical scuffle with a judge (see the video here) that ended in a round of applause from everyone in the courtroom. (That attorney is now in private practice.)
The point is that public defenders are often overworked, frustrated and bogged down. What do you think? Is working with a public defender a gamble, and should people who cannot afford an attorney do everything they can to hire counsel?