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Resolutions address ‘national scandal’ of underfunded and overburdened public defenders

Posted Feb 11, 2013 12:20 PM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Public defenders who are dealing with excessive caseloads are getting some support from the ABA House of Delegates.

Two resolutions approved on Monday deal with the issue.

Resolution 104A urges Congress to create and fund an independent, federally funded Center for Indigent Defense Services to help governments carry out their constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance to indigent defendants. A report accompanying the resolution says the federal center would create state entities that would determine appropriate staffing levels for indigent defense and certify when the levels have been met.

“Today the failure of state and local governments to adequately fund indigent defense is a national scandal,” the report says. “Resources allocated to indigent defense systems vary dramatically from state to state and across counties within a state, resulting in crushing caseloads being forced upon public defender offices and assigned counsel in many areas. The type of representation an indigent accused receives should not depend upon the state or county in which he or she is arrested.”

Resolution 104C urges state lawmakers to pass laws that would prohibit firing a chief public defender or other indigent-services leader who limits acceptance of new clients in a good-faith effort to ensure competent representation. According to ABA Formal Ethics Opinion 06-441, lawyer supervisors in PD offices have an ethical obligation to make reasonable efforts to control staff workloads to ensure competent and diligent representation.

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