Public Defenders: Underpaid, Overworked, and Critical for the Justice System

Life as a public defender is rough. After finishing law school and being saddled with the accompanying debt, people work in an often maligned profession for minimal pay and extremely long hours. They’re not getting the perks and benefits available to private criminal defense attorneys, who can charge massive fees for their services, work out of cushy offices, and have considerable administrative support from paralegals, interns, and other staff. Public defenders have to do a lot of their own research, competing for limited services and budgets in a crowded and busy office when it comes to preparing for a case, and while the burden of proof lies on the prosecution, a public defender can be placed in the position of functionally having to prove innocence.

The right to access counsel when accused of a criminal offence is supposedly enshrined in US law; come before the bench without the ability to afford legal representation, and a judge will appoint an attorney for you. That attorney comes from the public defender’s office, and will work with you as effectively as possible to give you a fair shake in court. That isn’t always easy, since your lawyer usually has a stack of other obligations that need to be waded through while representing you, including assisting other clients, managing paperwork, and coordinating with officemates.

Programmes intended to provide support to low-income defendants are historically heavily underfunded. No less an authority than William Sessions, a former Federal Bureau of Investigation director, has said that the current state of the system is a shambles. More than that, it is a shame that people living in the US should be embarrassed by, because it speaks volumes to how we think about the justice system and people who come into contact with it. Attorneys who work as public defenders are treated with contempt, and many accused don’t understand the role of the public defender.

It’s not uncommon for defendants to be uncooperative because they don’t trust the public defender. This state-appointed interloper may claim to be on the side of the accused, but how does the accused know this? Particularly for low-income people of colour and nonwhite people, many interactions with the state in any form are profoundly negative, and there’s a deeply ingrained sense of distrust, acquired as a form of self defense. If you don’t let the state in your life, it may be less likely to harm you.

Thus, public defenders may find their hands tied when it comes to helping their clients, because their clients won’t accept their help. And when you’re working on a packed schedule with a huge number of people and limited funds, it is very hard to take the time to build up a relationship. The public defender has to think about the next appointment, the next client, the next strategy. You do your best with the resources you have, but those resources aren’t adequate to meet the needs of the people turning to you for help.

It’s not uncommon for public defenders to be provided with little to no private space to meet with clients, which is a violation of the rights of the client. Some are brought in at the last minute to take over cases, and may not be familiar with the specifics or the client. Others have caseloads so high that they are forced to triage when assessing the cases they’ve been assigned to defend, because they cannot realistically help all of their clients and they would rather assist some than none. Meanwhile, clients need education about the legal system and what is going on with their cases that a public defender may not have the time, or ability, to provide.

This is part of a tangled system that makes it very difficult for people to navigate the courts once they fall into them. With more and more states adding mandatory sentencing and absurd laws like revoking licenses for increasing numbers of traffic offenses, more and more people are likely to end up in court at some point during the course of their lives. At they hit the system, they are thrust into a brave new world; at every turn they are told about how fair the justice system is and how much the United States holds up its values, how it serves as a beacon and model for the world. Yet, what they actually see inside the system is radically different, as they huddle with their public defenders in the hallway of a courthouse to talk strategy 10 minutes before a case starts, whispering in the hopes of not being overheard.

Rather than increasing funding for public defenders and expanding access, some states are actually cutting it. As with other forms of social services intended to preserve fundamental human rights, the government seems to be assuming that private organisations will pick up the torch and carry on. Many are, because the alternative is sitting by while people are treated unfairly by the justice system, but they don’t have the resources either. As a result, nonprofits and other organisations dedicated to helping people access legal services are struggling to meet the needs of their clients, while the numbers of clients grow because public defenders are overloaded and the economy is dragging down incomes.

Public defenders should be a bedrock of the legal system, critical to the smooth functioning of the courts and the preservation of human rights. They have tremendous potential as actors within the legal system to change it, and yet they aren’t provided with the tools they need to do just that. Hands tied, they are forced to sit while the system they once respected is falling apart.