Many public defense attorneys are swamped with more cases than they can accommodate, illustrates a recent New York Times report. But the understaffing of these offices is fueled by an issue that didn’t make it into the Times article: funding for public defenders’ salaries.
Drawing from a 2017 study on attorney workload in the Louisiana defender system, the New York Times reported on the overflowing caseloads that exceed the capacity of a single attorney. For example, Louisiana attorney Jack Talaska “would have needed almost 10,000 hours, or five work-years, to handle the 194 felony cases he had on that April  day alone, not to mention the dozens more he would be assigned that year.” Those figures don’t even account for his death penalty cases, which are even more time-consuming.
Due to “outlandish, excessive workloads” that are “making a mockery of the constitutional right to counsel recognized by the United States Supreme Court,” as James R. Silkenat, president of the American Bar Association characterized them, the study’s public defenders were unable to commit the necessary time to each case. This leads to fewer cases being taken to trial, increasing pressure on defendants to accept coercive plea bargains.
To put the demand for public defense in perspective, around four out of five criminal defendants do not have the means to pay for a lawyer and therefore require a public defender, according to the Times.
Yet the defense attorney profession is failing to attract new lawyers, who are typically burdened by massive amounts of student debt. In New York City, the Legal Aid Society has seen an exodus of attorneys moving to higher-paying government legal positions, such as in the Administrative Trial Unit at the Department of Education. And in Florida, one in five public defenders and prosecutors left their jobs during the 2017 fiscal year, calculated The Florida Times-Union.
Although District Attorneys offices frequently face similar issues of inadequate salaries, Legal Aid lawyers with three years’ experience were making on average $11,200 less than equivalent professionals at the Staten Island DA’s office and $4,700 less than those at the Manhattan DA’s office, according to a City Council Committee on Justice System report. When the incentives for public prosecuting and defending lawyers are so different, it raises basic questions about justice.
“Every aspect of my role from mentoring and fostering interest in public defense careers in students early on to extending offers … to saying goodbye to my colleagues who no longer found this career to be sustainable for them … I am hearing the same question over and over,” said Sharon Cumberbatch, director of hiring, diversity and community engagement at the Bronx Defenders: “‘While I am incredibly committed to supporting my clients and their community how am I supposed to support myself while on this salary?'”