Empowered by a New Report, Public Defenders Push for Manageable Caseloads

February 19, 2014

On a typical recent morning Colleen M. Polak, a St. Louis County public defender, ran upstairs and down and up again and in and out of four courtrooms, simultaneously representing clients in 10 cases. She consulted, negotiated and sometimes just waited.

On this day, one client was sentenced to six years for illegal gun possession after a judge dismissed Ms. Polak’s objections to what she called questionable evidence. Ms. Polak, 32, was disappointed, saying that she had spent weekends on the case so as not to deprive other clients of her time but that it was impossible to spread herself as thinly as the job required.

“Some clients are probably not getting as much attention as they deserve,” she said. “That’s what bothers me the most.

Here in Missouri, where public defenders say they are especially burdened, many legal experts hope that an exhaustive new analysis of workloads and needs, sponsored by the American Bar Association, will strengthen their multiyear battle for change.

Chronically understaffed, and reeling from caseloads several times larger than those managed by private lawyers, public defenders here and in many parts of the country have started trying to force legislators to respond. In the last two years, defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state Supreme Courts, the right to refuse new cases they cannot responsibly handle.

Case refusal, with its potential to disrupt court dockets and even force prosecutors to drop charges, has not yet happened on a large scale. In Missouri, prosecutors and some judges have challenged the need for it, arguing that public defenders are inefficient and no more loaded by work than other parties in the justice system.

But many other legal experts say the daily triage required of public lawyers is unconstitutional and forces them to violate their ethical obligations to clients.

“Limited resources move to higher-level cases like murder and rape, and thousands of other defendants are simply being thrown under the bus, with the illusion of a lawyer,” said Stephen F. Hanlon, a private lawyer who is chairman of a national bar association advisory group on indigent defense and who provides legal representation to the Missouri State Public Defender System.

The new report, described by legal experts as the most detailed and credible of its kind, has provided numbers to back up the claim that defenders here face Sisyphean workloads.

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