Public Defender Shortage Threatens Accused’s Constitutional Rights

A recent article is bringing attention to a longstanding problem in our criminal justice system, not just in Maryland, but nationwide – overworked, underpaid, and overwhelmed, public defenders. The problem not only undermines the integrity of the system, but threatens the constitutional rights of accused defendants, as well.

What is a Public Defender?

The constitution guarantees those convicted of a crime the right to an attorney. As you may know from TV or movies, if someone cannot afford an attorney, the state will appoint an attorney for the defendant. Those appointed attorneys are public defenders, and they are paid by the state.

Certainly, it is reasonable to expect that an attorney provided by the state may not be able to give the same time or attention to a case as a private attorney. This is not because public defenders are not competent attorneys; they are. The problem is that as public defenders’ caseloads grow, their ability to competently represent defendants become threatened by no real fault of their own.

Limits Often Exceeded

Maryland does have limits on how many cases a public defender can be appointed. That number is based upon the number of cases an attorney can competently handle. But those limits are non-binding, and according to the article, are often exceeded. One study indicated that Maryland has 380 public defenders doing the work of what should be 530 lawyers. In some areas, defenders were given twice the recommended limit of cases.

Public defenders rightfully complain that the caseload prevents them from meeting with clients before hearings, or from being fully apprised of the facts and circumstances of each case. Criminal defendants have voiced concern that they were being pushed to take plea deals, as defenders do not have the time to handle longer, drawn out criminal trials.

Competent Counsel Issues May Arise

The constitutional right to counsel requires competent counsel. Thus, many may claim ineffective assistance of counsel due to an overworked public defender, but that is a tough argument to make. The claim requires a showing that the attorney made an actual mistake, and not a tactical decision. An attorney’s deliberate decision to do or not do something can not be the basis of the claim.

Further, there must be prejudice. An error that would not have had an impact on the outcome of a case, will not allow a conviction to be overturned for ineffective assistance of counsel. There have been cases where attorneys slept during trial, or were using narcotics during trial, but because errors during trial would not have impacted the outcome, courts have denied ineffective assistance of counsel.

The end result is that those who are left with public defenders may have little recourse to challenge convictions that they feel may have occurred because the defenders were overworked. Until additional funding is available, the constitutional rights of Maryland’s poorest accused citizens may remain in jeopardy.

Make sure that you have competent representation if you are accused of committing a crime. If you or your family member are arrested, contact the attorneys of Brassel, Alexander & Rice, LLC today for a free consultation to discuss your case.