ACLU Responds to National Public Defense Workload Study

September 12, 2023 12:44 pm

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NEW YORK — A first of its kind comprehensive national study into how many cases public defense attorneys can reasonably handle provides new evidence that many public defense systems around the country are overburdened. An overburdened public defense system inevitably jeopardizes the constitutional rights of public defenders’ clients and undermines the integrity of the justice system.

The National Public Defense Workload Study (NPDWS) finds that the last national workload standards, developed in 1973, are outdated and do not give attorneys enough time to provide constitutionally adequate representation to every client. These old national standards were not developed using a rigorous or reliable methodology — the new NPDWS standards are a much better benchmark for public defense attorneys, policymakers, and other stakeholders to use when evaluating whether a given public defense system is living up to the promise of our Constitution.

Among other things, the new standards account for the increasing demands that modern technology places on criminal defense lawyers. To provide constitutionally adequate criminal defense, attorneys need time in many cases, for example, to review voluminous information from body-worn cameras, cell phones, social media data, and forensic evidence.

“The NPDWS study is yet another alarm indicating that we have much more work to do to make the constitutional right to counsel real for everyone,” said Emma Andersson, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “In this era of mass incarceration and overcriminalization, public defenders work to challenge systemic oppression every day. Despite their essential role, public defenders are consistently undervalued. Lawmakers and decisionmakers must invest in public defense systems, while simultaneously reducing mass incarceration.”

The landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, decided 60 years ago, established the fundamental right to an attorney for people accused of crimes and facing incarceration, regardless of their wealth or poverty. Since Gideon, the right to counsel has been expanded to include children in juvenile delinquency proceedings, probationers in probation revocation proceedings, and people charged with misdemeanors. The Supreme Court has established that the right includes an obligation for lawyers to correctly advise their clients about certain immigration consequences of criminal convictions, and that the right includes effective assistance of counsel during plea bargaining. These developments in the law resulted in meaningful change, but in too many jurisdictions the right to counsel is not a reality for many people who are accused of crimes and cannot afford an attorney.

The ACLU works across the country to improve public defense systems and uphold the right to counsel for all. More information about our work on this issue can be found here.

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