California county notes the value of a strong defense

BY Jon Mosher on Tuesday, April 26, 2011 at 10:54 AM

On April 26, the Daily Democrat featured a guest column demonstrating the value of public defenders from the county administration’s perspective.  The public defender’s office in Yolo County, California, “in addition to representing people individually, also provides a system of checks and balances on the criminal justice system as a whole.  It guarantees that no agency -- whether that be the District Attorney's Office or a police department -- is allowed to operate unchallenged and unquestioned.  The Constitution is very much a reaction to the events that came before it.”

Unfortunately, in comparing the Yolo County Public Defender’s Office’s workload against what is required under national standards, it becomes clear the office is insufficiently staffed and risks being unable to fulfill this critical role, nor its constitutional obligations under Gideon.  According to FY2009 caseload figures provided by the author, the agency handled 2,860 felony cases.  National standards call for attorneys to handle a maximum of 150 felony cases per attorney per year, meaning the office’s felony caseload would require the full attention of 19 of the office’s 21 attorneys on its own.  But the agency also was assigned to represent another 3,131 misdemeanor cases, 650 juvenile cases, and 157 mental health cases.  National caseload standards call for a maximum of 400 misdemeanors, or 200 juvenile delinquency cases, or 200 mental health commitment cases per individual attorney per year.  In other words, the office requires at least 31 full time attorneys to handle the volume of cases it is being asked to handle -- 10 more than it currently employs.

Additionally, all national standards strongly recommend that workloads should be adjusted to account for the extent to which an attorney has access to adequate support staff, such as investigators, social workers, paralegals, legal secretaries, and office managers.  Investigators, for example, have specialized experience and training to make them more effective than attorneys at critical case-preparation tasks, such as finding and interviewing witnesses, assessing crime scenes, and gathering and evaluating evidence -- tasks that otherwise have to be conducted, at greater cost, by an attorney.  Because of the need for adequate support staff, some jurisdictions impose further restrictions on their indigent defense caseload standards. For example, public defenders in Indiana who do not maintain state-sponsored attorney-to-support-staff ratios cannot carry more than 120 felony cases per year, which is down from the standard of 150 felonies per year.  

National standards further prescribe precise numeric ratios of support staff to cases.  For example, an agency should employ one full time investigator and one full time social service caseworker for every 450 felony cases; one full time investigator and one full time social service caseworker for every 600 juvenile cases; and one full time investigator and one full time social service caseworker for every 1,200 misdemeanor cases.  The Yolo County Public Defender’s Office has only four investigators on staff whereas, under national caseload standards, it really needs 10. 

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