A debate on unrepresented criminal defendants is unfolding in Massachusetts. At a hearing yesterday, the Boston Globe reports, Hampden District Attorney William Bennett blamed the state public defender agency for the inability of poor criminal defendants in his county to find lawyers. Responding to a new ruling by the state’s highest court that defendants are being denied their constitutional right to counsel, Bennett said caseloads of public defenders in Springfield are “artificially too low” and the lawyers should represent people languishing in jail because private lawyers will not take their cases at current pay scales. Bennett said public defenders represent on average 18 defendants at a time while his prosecutors handle cases involving nearly 73 defendants.
William Leahy, representing the public defenders, said, “We have got 58 individuals who do not have counsel.” Of those, 31 have been held in Hampden jail on charges ranging from rape to arson, some for three months — all without legal help. The hearing was held after the Supreme Judicial Court said defendants in Hampden “are being deprived of their right to counsel under Article 12 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights.”