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HOT SPRINGS -- Members of the Arkansas Public Defender Commission say the state's indigent defense system faces a "crisis" as public defender caseloads inflate while budgets flat-line.

Photo by Staton Breidenthal
Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney Larry Jegley

Since 2014, the number of defendants represented by public defenders in juvenile, district and circuit courts across the state has increased by 5 percent while state funding has decreased by 2 percent, according to data provided by the commission. And since 2010, the number of public defenders in the state has increased by nine, to a total of 222 defenders handling the state's roughly 88,000 cases annually.

What that means for each defender is an average caseload of more than 300 felonies in a year -- a workload that has drawn skepticism over the quality of representation a defender can provide for each client.

"If you're a commercial driver and you load your truck too much, you get in trouble; if you own a movie theater and you pack too many people into the room, you get in trouble with the fire marshal," and the same principle should apply to public defenders, commission Chairman Jerry Larkowski said Friday during a meeting in Hot Springs.

Robert Jeffrey, the managing public defender of the state's 13th Judicial Circuit in Magnolia, said he was once carrying 500 cases annually until his office recently hired one additional defender, bringing his caseload down to about 300.

"I describe it as triage in an emergency room. You just take the most serious and most immediate," Jeffrey said. "I go by who's set for trial first, and you give your time to others as you can."

Like many states, Arkansas' indigent defense system has become "unethical and unconstitutional," said Stephen Hanlon, who spoke before the commission on behalf of the National Association for Public Defense.

Public defenders are often the last or only line of defense between a defendant and a sentence. And since a 1963 Supreme Court decision, states and counties have been tasked with appointing competent representation to defendants too poor to hire private counsel.

Ideally, proper defense counsel should include discussions with the client, analysis of relevant law, analysis of evidence, and discussion of sentencing possibilities, according to standards set by the American Bar Association. Yet because of the intractable caseloads of defenders across the country, those standards have become a challenge to meet, Hanlon said.

Across the country and in Arkansas, 94 percent of all cases result in guilty pleas, according to the Bureau of U.S. Justice Statistics.

"That means we have a plea system. When I started practicing we had a trial system, but we don't anymore. There are a lot of problems with that kind of thing," Hanlon said.

"We've been doing this for 53 years, and we have dug a deep, deep hole," he said.

On Friday, he implored the commission to stop accepting new cases if they would diminish a defender's ability to meet his responsibilities to other clients. It's an approach that has been condoned by the high courts of many states, including Florida, Massachusetts and Missouri.

But Hanlon's harshest criticism of the state's indigent defense system focused on nonviolent offenses that sweep many people into the eddies of the criminal justice system.

"Take a look at all the stuff we have criminalized over the last 30 years: the criminalization of poverty and homelessness and mental illness, et cetera, et cetera -- all these things that have no public safety consequences whatsoever," he said.

"These courts are causing and exacerbating poverty, and that's a horrible role for our courts to be playing in our society."

Metro on 06/19/2016

Print Headline: Little help available for rising caseloads


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