In Missouri, where public defenders say they are especially burdened, legal experts hope that an exhaustive new analysis of workloads and needs sponsored by the American Bar Association will strengthen their long battle for change, reports the New York Times. Chronically understaffed, and reeling from caseloads several times larger than those of private lawyers, public defenders in many parts of the U.S. have started trying to force legislators to respond. Defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state supreme courts, the right to refuse new cases they cannot responsibly handle. Case refusal, with its potential to disrupt court dockets and force prosecutors to drop charges, has not happened on a large scale. In Missouri, prosecutors and some judges have challenged the need for it, arguing that public defenders are inefficient and no more loaded by work than other parties in the justice system.
Other legal experts say the daily triage required of public lawyers is unconstitutional, forcing them to violate their ethical obligations to clients. “Limited resources move to higher-level cases like murder and rape, and thousands of other defendants are simply being thrown under the bus, with the illusion of a lawyer,” said Stephen Hanlon, chairman of a national bar association advisory group on indigent defense and who provides legal representation to the Missouri State Public Defender System. The new report has provided numbers to back up the claim that defenders face Sisyphean workloads. “We found we are worse off than we thought we were,” said Cathy Kelly, director of the Missouri public defender system. For serious felonies, defenders spent an average of only nine hours preparing their cases, compared with the 47 hours they needed, the study found. For misdemeanors, they spent only two hours while 12 were called for.