On one recent morning, Louisville public defender Krsna Tibbs ran from courtroom to courtroom, representing about a half-dozen people in Jefferson District Court, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports. One case involved a man charged with multiple domestic violence offenses, theft, and traffic violations. The judge wanted a trial within the hour. The client spoke only Spanish, and Tibbs couldn’t find an interpreter. Witnesses, summoned to court repeatedly, were unhappy with the prospect of another delay. Tibbs, who is 30 and six months into his first job as a lawyer, said the day was “pretty typical.” The work is hectic, he said, but he believes he does the best he can for clients.
Tibbs is among Kentucky’s 300 public defenders, with caseloads that hit 131,000 in the last fiscal year, a 12 percent increase over the previous year. Each defender opens an average of 489 cases a year, more than the number recommended by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Kentucky public defenders handle a mix of misdemeanors, felonies and juvenile cases. The association says public defenders should open no more than 400 misdemeanor cases, the simplest to represent, or no more than 150 felony or 200 juvenile cases per year. The association does not set a threshold for a mix of those cases. Public defenders represent 85 percent of the people charged with felonies in Kentucky, including most of those charged in potential death penalty cases. The public defender agency needs $4.4 million more in state money to hire 64 lawyers. Without it, lawyers may have to begin refusing cases. That would mean the agency could be held in contempt, or a judge could order defendants represented by private lawyers for free.