Overloaded Public Defense Systems Result in More Prison Time, Less Justice
New report: Public defense systems in U.S. have too many cases, too little time, too few resources

WASHINGTON, D.C. – The ongoing overburdening of U.S. public defense systems that serve millions of people annually is jeopardizing the fairness of our justice system and can result in more and longer prison sentences, according to a report published today by the Justice Policy Institute. According to the report, 73 percent of county-based public defender offices lacked the requisite number of attorneys to meet caseload standards; 23 percent of these offices had less than half of the necessary attorneys to meet caseload standards. With an increasing overload of cases, lack of quality defense and a shortage of resources, the report argues, justice is not being served and the wellbeing of millions of people is at stake.

System Overload: The Costs of Under-Resourcing Public Defense found that public defense systems across the country are overburdened, and considers how the busting-at-the-seams systems affect state and county budgets, the lives of those behind bars, the impact on their families, and the challenges of re-entering communities after serving time. The study further looks at why dedicated public defenders do not have enough time to conduct thorough investigations, or meet with and provide quality representation for their clients – many of whom are low-income earners and people of color – contributing to disparities in the criminal justice system.

“More resources must be devoted to our nation’s public defense systems. When we fail to invest in quality defense, we pay greater costs down the road – the costs of more incarceration, less public safety and fewer resources to build healthier communities. A lack of investments on the front end is creating significant costs in terms of incarceration and the lost contributions of those negatively affected; ultimately taxpayers bear the burden,” said Tracy Velázquez, executive director of the Justice Policy Institute (JPI). “People who, with appropriately resourced counsel, would not serve prison or jail time are disproportionately serving longer, unnecessary sentences: For every $1 we spend on public defense, we are currently spending nearly $14 on corrections. We need to make smarter investments that will keep us safe and not empty our wallets.”

National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony, 400 misdemeanor, 200 juvenile, 200 mental health, or 25 appeals per year. Only 12 percent of county public defender offices with more than 5,000 cases per year had enough lawyers to meet caseload standards. Nearly 60 percent of county-based public defender offices do not have caseload limits or the authority to refuse cases due to excessive caseloads. This lack of authority is particularly evident in larger offices with higher caseloads.

“The Sixth Amendment states that all citizens have a right to counsel, but the problem is that too many people are not getting quality or even adequate counsel as a result of overburdened attorneys serving in our public defense systems,” said Kate Taylor, author of the report and an Emerson National Hunger Fellow with the Congressional Hunger Center. “The number of cases many attorneys are expected to handle is unrealistic, unfair and is a recipe for disaster when it comes to receiving a fair trial. However, some places, like the Bronx Defenders and the D.C. Public Defender Services, are using innovative strategies to improve and expand on public defense. States and localities should look towards these and other successful systems for ways to improve the effectiveness of their services and to ensure justice for their clients.”

In an effort to ensure a more fair and effective justice system that guarantees quality representation, curtails wasteful spending practices, and decreases the overuse of incarceration, the report includes the following recommendations:

  • Integrate a holistic and community-based approach to public defense. Community-based and holistic approaches to defense can help address the root causes of justice system involvement and prevent future involvement by treating the whole client. This can improve public safety, save money on corrections and have a positive impact on people and communities.
  • Collect better data and conduct more empirical evaluations on the impact of public defense systems on people, communities and criminal justice. Rigorous research and data collection on all justice policies and practices, but especially public defense, can help policymakers make informed decisions on policies that impact public defense.
  • Involve public defenders and affected communities in the policymaking process. As people who are directly involved with the laws and policies in a state or locality, defenders are in the unique position of being able to offer insight on the impact these policies have on people, on their law offices, and on the justice system. As such, defenders should be actively engaged in the policymaking process for criminal justice policies as equal partners in the justice system.
  • Actively seek out the voices and perspectives of people who have used defender services to gain a better understanding of the realities of various systems and the implications for people. Nobody knows better the impact of criminal justice policies and practices than people who are involved in the justice system. Involving people directly impacted by the justice system will provide crucial information on making better and more effective and just policies.

To read System Overload CLICK HERE (www.justicepolicy.org/systemoverload). For additional information, please contact Zerline Hughes at (202) 558-7974 x308 / [email protected] or Jason Fenster at (202) 558-7974 x306 / [email protected].

The Justice Policy Institute, based in Washington, DC, is working to reduce the use of incarceration and the justice system and promote policies that improve the well-being of all people and communities. For more information, please visit www.justicepolicy.org.