The harried schedule of a Kentucky public defender juggling more than 30 cases underscores a problem the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy has grappled with for decades: Too many clients and not enough money mean public defenders are being stretched too thin, putting the quality of representation at risk, reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. Tim Young, chairman of the National Association for Public Defense, said the constitutional issues for indigent defendants across the nation are serious: “It means people are going to prison for longer than they should. It means people are going to prison who shouldn't. It means we're spending vast sums of money incarcerating people who are not only innocent but never should have been in our system in the first place.”
Though no case has been filed in Kentucky, the American Civil Liberties Union and its affiliates have filed lawsuits against other states, counties and municipalities contending that they have deprived poor people of their right to an attorney. In Michigan and Montana, those efforts have already prompted legislative reforms. “Any state where we think there are significant, systemic problems – and it sounds like there are in Kentucky – is a state we are going to be looking at very, very closely,” said Ezekiel Edwards, director of the ACLU's criminal law reform project. In fiscal year 2015, almost every staff public defender had a caseload that exceeded the maximum national standard. Kentucky has 333 public defenders in 33 offices to cover every court in all 120 counties. Some of those offices cover as many as eight counties, which forces some public defenders to drive thousands of miles each year just to reach courthouses, taking time away from arguing cases or talking to clients.