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OPINION | EDITORIAL: Prescription for the court

State’s jurisdictions need more juris doctors September 21, 2022 at 4:01 a.m.

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers!"

--Dick the Butcher

Scholars debate--when don't they?--whether Shakespeare was skewering the legal profession or defending it. Was Shakespeare saying his country would be better off without all those lawyers? Or was it "implicit praise" of the legal profession, which keeps the mob from its mob justice, given the person who speaks the line?

Our bet is some of both. Shakespeare often pulled that off.

Lawyer jokes aside (and there is a side of us that loves a good lawyer joke), it's important to remember the role lawyers are trained to play: that of the breakwater against the tide of injustice. If that's too elite-sounding, then call it an obligation to keep things legit.

We note that people who appear in court aren't telling many lawyer jokes, but instead are counting on their lawyer being a real pro.

As with all professions, you take the good with the bad and hope to cash out each day in the black.

In today's quasi-post-covid world, we need more lawyers. Really.

Well, certain lawyers. For example, in Arkansas' criminal justice system.

Prosecutors and public defenders are saddled with enormous backlogs of cases, and new ones slip through the slot in the door each day.

The paper reported this week that one of covid's impacts, which flew under the radar as the pandemic raged, is more than just lingering. It's hanging on strong. The criminal justice system in Arkansas--and everywhere--is bogged down with backlogged cases that were placed on hold while the world quarantined.

And, as human nature has demonstrated over and again, crime doesn't take a holiday. Any progress made on old cases is quickly surpassed by the number of new cases flying in like letters to Santa.

Jurisdictions need more juris doctors.

In March, the state provided $1 million each to the Arkansas Public Defender Commission and the state Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator to appoint attorneys for temp help. Four months later, it was clear the infusion wasn't enough, and the state diverted $4.5 million more from federal covid relief to extend those appointments.

In some Arkansas districts, the extra help has been just that, and in a big way. In others, where interested attorneys are harder to find, the help has merely enabled local courts already backlogged to tread water.

Public defenders in the Sixth Judicial District, which covers Pulaski and Perry counties, were handling an average of 120 active cases at any one time pre-covid, the paper says. Once the pandemic set in, caseloads increased as much as fourfold. One district attorney was reported to have been carrying more than 800 open cases.

How is a lawyer going to handle 800 cases?

In Benton County, rapid growth has further strained the system. Reports say that both the prosecutor's and public defender's offices managed to hire enough part-time attorneys to slow the onslaught, but the strain is taking a toll.

Recruitment of new blood is paramount. And the strain is heavier on the public defender side, where the pay is not as good. (This reminds one of the legal profession's symbolic golf partner: In Arkansas, the medical profession has struggled with a shortage of physicians willing to set up shop in rural Arkansas, where the pay is less and the rewards not as glittery. Thankfully, new osteopathic schools of medicine in the state are helping to address that shortage.)

Jay Saxton, chief public defender in Benton County, told the paper that the typical workload for one of his lawyers far exceeds the recommendation of 150 felony cases per year, as set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards.

Mr. Saxton's crew is managing its workload by visiting clients in jail on weekends and bringing work home at night.

"It's just a normal habit for us," he said, noting that such a workload isn't sustainable for long. "That's why public defender offices lose their public defenders fairly quick; it's because it's a grueling job to have." And it already was, pre-covid.

Many Arkansans have no choice but to continue to wait for justice. The front-line heroes in the courthouses are doing their part, but there's only so much they can do without new blood and the money to pay those legal white blood cells.

Unless we could count on Americans to stop breaking the law, to stop suing each other, to stop needing legal representation in a pinch, and to make sure all law enforcement authority is perfect . . . .

Lord, what fools these mortals be.

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