In the U.S., we have collectively established that those accused of crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. This idea stems from the Bill of Rights and sets the framework for our current legal system. Another provision of our legal system, which you are familiar with if you’ve ever had the misfortune to be arrested (or, more plausibly, watched “Law and Order”) is an entitlement to a public defender if you are not able to afford your own lawyer. This provision is guaranteed by the Supreme Court’s 1963 decision in Gideon v. Wainwright.
In theory, this should guarantee that justice is upheld and that all people will receive a fair trial regardless of financial restraints. However, the reality of indigent defense is that many do not receive such due process of the law. In the 75 largest counties, 68.3% of defendants receive a public defender. Of those defendants, 71% end up pleading guilty. In U.S. district courts, 87.1% of indigent defendants plead guilty. These numbers testify to the ubiquity of the plea bargain in the criminal justice system, especially in cases of indigent defendants. The constraints on public defenders due to chronically low funding preclude the rightful administration of justice.
Public defenders are overloaded and overworked. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, the annual caseload assigned to public defenders spanned from 50 to 590 cases. For comparison, the American Bar Association sets their recommended maximum caseload at 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases. While this may inevitably be based on location, attorney, and the cases themselves, there is no question that the burden on public defenders far exceeds this recommendation.
The result of such onerous caseloads? Extremely limited amounts of time to devote to hundreds of cases each year. Scenarios in which defendants have extremely limited interactions with their assigned public defenders are all too common. In Missouri, for example, some defendants must wait in jail for weeks before even meeting their assigned attorney for the first time.
As these lawyers have very little time to focus on each individual case, an astounding 94-97% of criminal cases end with a plea bargain without ever going to trial. There simply isn’t enough time for public defenders to meet with their clients, examine troves of evidence, meet with witnesses, file motions, and ultimately argue their case effectively. These inevitable constraints on fair trials explain the tendency of public defenders to resort to the plea bargain.
Plea bargains entail the forfeiture of a defendant’s right to a trial in exchange for leniency in sentencing (which, considering the absurd mandatory minimum sentencing laws still on the books, isn’t saying much). When a plea deal is accepted, the state does not have to prove its case. In many such cases, our country is providing the right to a trial in name only. Public defenders are far more prone to rush to the plea due to the impossibility of arguing so many cases at once.
This is not an indictment of public defenders at all. They do what is best for their clients given the immense constraints imposed upon them. The root of this issue lies in chronically low funding, understaffing of public defenders, and high arrest rates. These factors combine to make it increasingly difficult for them to do their jobs effectively and uphold the constitutional rights of their clients.
The good news is that this problem is solvable. Increased funding and staffing for indigent defense would go a long way towards diminishing these caseloads. The bad news is that the political reality of indigent defense isn’t great. State budgets are tight as ever, and public defense spending is often the first to go. After all, spending more money to defend suspected criminals isn’t necessarily perceived as a political win for tough-on-crime legislators. Due to inherent budget constraints on the state and local level, the political reality of increasing funding is predictably bleak.
This is a complex issue that requires a nuanced, individualized approach for each jurisdiction. However, some commonalities transcend state and county bonds. Funding should be increased across the board in order to adequately hire and compensate public defenders. A good blanket rule would be to tie funding for indigent defense to funding for prosecution. If prosecution funding increases, then so should funding for the defendants. In some Michigan counties, for example, prosecution funding outpaces defense spending 20 to 1. Egregious imbalances between prosecution and defense ought to be equalized.
It’s up to each state and locality to determine what’s best for their constituents, and approaches should be tailored to meet their needs. Most importantly, however, is that the constitutional rights of indigent defendants are also taken into full consideration. If they are not, we risk perpetuating injustice and infringing upon their rights as citizens of the United States.
John Higgins is a sophomore from Olathe studying economics and sociology.