Budget cutbacks, huge caseloads and most recently the pressures placed on the justice system by COVID-19 are taking a heavy psychological toll on public defenders, according to a new study.
The “occupational stress” suffered by those tasked to fulfill constitutional guarantees of the right to counsel regardless of the ability to pay is a too-often neglected consequence of the inequities of the justice system, the study argued.
The authors of the study called it the “stress of injustice.”
“Working within these structural constraints makes public defenders highly vulnerable to chronic stress and can have profound implications for their ability to safeguard the rights of poor defendants,” the authors concluded.
Using semi-structured interviews, researchers at Rutgers University and Drexel University applied a series of tools to assess the “social and psychological demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged” to a sample of 87 public defenders across the United States.
They found three “major stressors” of injustice that affected the emotional health of those practicing indigent defense just as definitively as the individuals they defended: penal excess, economic divestment and the criminalization of mental illness.
A fourth more recent stressor was the COVID-19 pandemic.
The ‘Tough on Crime’ Effect
Ideological shifts in the past decades, leading to a tougher approach to crime with long, harsh sentences, increased the stakes facing defendants and, by implication, their legal counsel. Because of the gravity of the legal consequences their clients face, “penal excess” meant that the emotional stress on defendants was invariably shared by their attorneys.
“I can’t imagine somebody younger than me doing 15 years of a full sentence,” a 30-year-old Asian-American attorney told the interviewers. “That would be difficult for me to live with.”
Attorneys in the survey were not identified by their full names to protect their anonymity.
Libby, a 29-year-old Hispanic public defender, said she often worried about the personal circumstances of her felony-charged clients. She recounted trying to reduce one client’s charges to a misdemeanor to ensure they would not lose public housing and become homeless.
“If you let yourself think about the consequences of the work too much, it’s just overwhelming,” Libby said.
“To a certain extent, I suspend disbelief about the work that I’m doing.”
The researchers also found that the systemic injustice, exacerbated by a “lack of equal investment in both sides of the adversarial legal system,” created stress among the lawyers who found it was necessary to take a huge caseload because of the relatively small reimbursements allotted for individual cases.
A 33-year-old Hispanic attorney named Chloe told the researchers: “We’re constantly being asked to do things that in what I feel like is an inhumane amount of time.”
At the same time, public defenders’ frustration is exacerbated by the fact that budgets for social welfare and rehabilitation programs are often cut or simply underfunded, while spending on police, prisons and prosecution is expansive and outmatches reform programs, the paper noted.
“Already a disenfranchised group, this lack of parity leaves the accused with the deck stacked against them,” the researchers wrote, noting that this environment increases the reliance on plea bargaining, potentially resulting in wrongful convictions.
A 37-year-old white attorney named Eve pointed to the sheer amount of cases she was forced to litigate, saying, “the volume, the being in court three days a week, having to go to the jail one or two days a week…A lot of times, we’re just triaging”
Criminalization of Mental Illness
The paper said the fact that “people who would otherwise be cared for in a medical facility, repeatedly land in jails and prisons—and in front of public defenders” added a third level of stress.
Studies have shown that the country’s largest mental health facilities are county jails in Chicago, Los Angeles and New York City.
A system that punishes those who have been marginalized by society also inadvertently punishes public defenders, as a result of the psychological impact of working with defendants who are not getting help they should be getting from the rest of the system, the paper said.
“I recently had a client, right before I went on leave, who I [worked with] since she was 15 years old, when I was a brand-new attorney,” a 31-year-old Hispanic attorney told the researchers.
“(I) went through the whole juvenile system with her. She got out of the juvenile system, went into the adult system,” she continued. “Got her out into a program, she left the program and then she overdosed.”
Such stories like this are not uncommon, the authors found, writing that many of the public defenders say this type of trauma is very taxing and results in “compassion fatigue.”
The Pandemic’s Impact
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic has forced public defenders to find creative ways to protect and defend their clients due to suspended jury trials, the study notes. The possibility of a jail or prison sentence that would expose a defendant to a deadly weighs heavily on those who defend them in court, the paper said.
A recent report quoted one public defender as saying that today is a time “when every sentence is a possible death sentence.”
Because of the pandemic and new health protocols within courts, the “tremendous backlog of cases” means a much higher caseload for defense attorneys in the short term. This could lead to a “flurry of plea offers” as attorneys and judges rush through cases to get through the mountain of files.
The justice system needs to do a better job at prioritizing the health of defense attorneys, the researchers said.
While the researchers said their study was not designed to suggest policy, they noted their findings implied approaches that could mitigate public defenders’ occupational stress.
Possible approaches included:
- Increase funding for public defenders;
- Provide assistance with secondary trauma as soon as an attorney starts a job;
- Introduce workplace interventions for overworked attorneys to reduce occupational stress;
- Educate young attorneys about stress management early in their careers, or even in law school.
The study authors were:
Dr. Valerio Baćak is an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, where his area of specialization includes understanding how legal systems of punishment and control shape social inequality.
Dr. Sarah Lageson is an assistant professor at the School of Criminal Justice at Rutgers University, where her area of research examines the growth of online crime data, mugshots, and criminal records.
Dr. Kathleen Powell is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of Criminology and Justice Studies at Drexel University, where she assesses the intersection of the justice system with life course health and inequality.
The full report can be accessed here.
“Can Prosecutors and Public Defenders Team Up to Produce Fairer Justice? The Crime Report, March 27, 2020
“Condemned for Nothing: How No-Crime Convictions Expose Our Flawed Legal System,” The Crime Report, Aug. 12, 2020
This summary was prepared by TCR staff writer Andrea Cipriano.