By: Maria Hibbard
We posted last week about how Michigan has appointed a special commission to study how to improve access to justice in an effort to reform the quality of representation indigent defendants receive; the Supreme Court of the state of Washington has taken this idea one step further. In a 7-2 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that public defenders representing indigent defendants can only take 150 felony or 300-400 misdemeanor cases a year.
Although the math about what constitutes a new “case” against the total has yet to be determined, the limit could possibly allow public defenders to provide better representation without being overburdened by a huge caseload. That said, however, the limit may cause budget-stretched public defender offices to be forced to hire more staff, even though the ruling doesn’t take effect until September 2013. According to the Associated Press, Washington’s solution is definitely one remedy in order to avoid cases like these:
The American Civil Liberties Union of Washington is suing the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, saying those cities jointly contracted with two part-time lawyers to represent indigent defendants in misdemeanor cases.
The two lawyers together handled more than 2,100 cases in 2010 alone, the plaintiffs said. In allowing the lawsuit to go forward, U.S. District Judge Robert Lasnik said the evidence could support a finding the lawyers were so overburdened that the appointment of public defenders in those cities is “little more than a sham.”
Grant County has spent the past seven years making changes to its public-defense system, including a reduction in caseloads, under a court settlement with the ACLU and Columbia Legal Services.
In a 2010 state Supreme Court ruling, a Grant County boy who was convicted at age 12 of sexually molesting a young neighbor was granted a new trial after his public defender, who handled about 500 cases annually, failed to investigate his case and urged him to plead guilty. The boy was eventually exonerated.
Since Grant County’s settlement, the county’s felony caseloads per public defender have dropped from about 500 per year to 150.