Public Defenders

Study is evidence of 'crisis in public defense systems,' ABA president says


An ABA study of Missouri public defenders serves as a blueprint for other jurisdictions developing evidence of “crushing workloads,” according to ABA President James R. Silkenat.

The study (PDF) found Missouri public defenders have insufficient time to spend on all aspects of their cases, according to an ABA press release.

The findings include: For murders, Missouri PDs should spend nearly 107 hours on each case, but they actually spend an average of 84.5 hours. For serious felonies, they should spend nearly 48 hours but actually spend an average of about nine hours. For sex felonies, they should spend about 64 hours but actually spend nearly 26 hours. For misdemeanors, they should spend nearly 12 hours but actually spend about two hours.

“The right to counsel in criminal cases is a bedrock principle of the U.S. Constitution,” Silkenat said in the press release. “The Missouri Project is groundbreaking because it provides clear, empirical evidence about the crisis in public defense systems that has been building for many years. Missouri is not alone in this crisis. All across the country, Americans are being denied their constitutional right to adequate counsel. The blueprint that accompanies the Missouri Project report will help jurisdictions develop sound evidence of the crushing workloads that keep public defenders from duly representing clients.”

The study, conducted on behalf of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants, used a business forecasting tool known as the “Delphi method.” Private criminal defense lawyers and public defenders across Missouri were asked to serve on an expert panel to provide a consensus estimate of the time that should be spent on a case to provide reasonable effective assistance of counsel, taking into account prevailing professional norms. Thirty-two private practice attorneys and 35 public defenders agreed to participate.

Initial survey responses were summarized and reported back to the Delphi panel, and the lawyers were asked to complete the survey a second time. Those who completed the second round were asked back to meet to consider the results and develop the final workload standards. Twenty-four lawyers participated in this final round.

A “national blueprint” that is part of the study explains the Delphi method and includes sample instructions and questions for lawyers serving on the expert panels.

Prior coverage:

ABAJournal.com: “Missouri public defenders seek $25M in increased funding, citing ABA study”

Columbia Daily Tribune: “Cyber crimes unit jobs, relief for public defenders at stake in governor’s budget moves”

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