The National Public Defender Crisis Continues

There’s a crisis going on nationwide that many people don’t notice. I notice because I work for public defenders every day, but when you’re in the middle class or you don’t get involved with the criminal justice system, the problems revolving around a broken litigation process aren’t your concern, are they? 

Public defenders spend their days seeking Justice for Colorado men and women charged with crimes, trying to help impoverished people in Oklahoma who can’t seem to break the cycle of their parents before them, and advocating for juveniles in Washington who are angry and neglected. These public defenders work for less pay, for longer hours, and with more stress because they believe in the cause. 

Unfortunately, the government doesn’t seem to believe in the cause as much as they do, because public defenders nationwide aren’t given the time or budget they need to do their jobs well. Often, limits are put on the amount of legal counsel they can give to each client, which results in lengthy incarcerations for poor people charged with crimes, further extending the issues in our criminal justice system. 

Ed Monahan, who’s the chief public defender in Kentucky, used a great metaphor when he said, “Public defenders are the pack mules of the system. Pack mules can carry a lot. But, you put one more box on an overburdened mule, and it won’t be able to function.” Defenders are forced to juggle hundreds of cases at a time, which means their quality of counsel is diminished. This helps no one. So, how can we fix this problem?

Solving the Defender Crisis

Public defender systems nationwide need higher budgets. They need to be able to staff more defenders so that cases get more widely dispersed. Then, public defenders will be able to handle their cases more effectively and the clients will receive better counsel.

As a paralegal, I can only do so much to help the public defender I work under. I see it first-hand that more public defenders are needed in the system. I’ve watched my bosses over the years get overloaded with cases. They want to help each client so badly, but there’s only so much time. 

I hope with a new election year coming that the next presidential candidate will make criminal justice reform a number one priority. The system is broken, not only on the inside, but on the outside as well.

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