ACLU Urges Dawson County to Adequately Fund Public Defenders Office

Affiliate: ACLU of Nebraska
March 21, 2013 12:21 pm

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Group alleges current caseload is beyond professional standards and does not adequately preserve guarantees of Constitutional and Nebraska law

March 21, 2013

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LINCOLN – On Thursday, the ACLU of Nebraska informed Dawson County that their current level of staffing in their public defender’s office has not been sufficient to meet standards of the American Bar Association. In the letter to the Dawson County Commissioners, the ACLU alleges that the current level of staffing opens the county up to Constitutional violations. Additionally, the group asserts that taxpayer dollars can be used wisely by providing adequate funding for public defenders.

“It was 50 years ago that the case of Gideon v. Wainwright was decided. This case isn’t just about a speech you hear on television police dramas. Keeping Gideon’s promise by adequately funding public defenders preserves justice today and saves taxpayer dollars tomorrow,” said ACLU of Nebraska Executive Director Becki Brenner. The Gideon case led to the now famous speech that informs all criminal defendants they have a right to an attorney, even if they cannot pay.

Dawson County has only been funding a part-time public defender, assisted by a part-time deputy. Their caseload in 2012 included over 250 felonies. Standards from the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice say that a full-time public defender should have no more than 150 felonies on their caseload. Additionally, Nebraska law states that “caseloads shall allow each lawyer to give every client the time and effort necessary to provide effective representation.”

“Public defenders are some of our justice system’s hardest working and most necessary figures. Yet counties like Dawson are expecting the impossible,” said ACLU of Nebraska Legal Director Amy Miller. “Even a dedicated public defender, when given a client list of over 250, will struggle to give each client more than a few minutes of her time.”

A 2004 report by the Nebraska Bar Association gave Nebraska only one “good” rating out of 10 for our county public defense systems. Subsequent reports haven’t provided the ACLU with any confidence that there has been significant change in the past decade.

Nationally, many county and state officials have been successfully sued for problems that arise with underfunded public defender’s offices. When ruling on these cases in other states, judges have written that it is a right that must be provided, regardless of cost. The ACLU asserts that there are real costs associated with not funding a public defender office.

“When an overburdened public defender has not had a chance to meet with her client or to work on a case, hearings are postponed – often at the last minute – wasting the time of prosecutors, judges, law enforcement and witnesses, costing us all,” said Miller. “Delays cause these same defendants to spend more time in jail, overcrowding facilities and costing counties more money. These same problems delay justice for victims. No one wins when cases are slow to be resolved.”

Around the county, organizations like the ACLU are doing an analysis of public defender programs.

“We must make sure that, 50 years after Gideon was decided, all Nebraska counties are providing proper public defender services,” said Brenner. The ACLU of Nebraska plans to investigate all Nebraska counties to see if concerns similar to the ones that exist in Dawson County exist elsewhere.

The ACLU is not taking legal action at this time but warned that it will consider a civil rights lawsuit if “[Dawson] county does not meet its obligations under state law and the Constitution.”

A copy of the ACLU letter to Dawson County is available online at

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