OKLAHOMA CITY (KFOR) – A new report examining public defender caseload standards uses nationwide data to show public defenders are overworked, while discussing the potential problems it causes for the criminal justice system.
“The system is either so overburdened that there aren’t enough public defenders to defend everybody going through the system, or people are waiting months and months to get a lawyer, or they will just plead out before ever talking to a lawyer because there are there aren’t enough public defenders,” said Emily Hamer.
Hamer, a reporter for Lee Enterprises’ Public Service Journalism team – which owns the Tulsa World – said in many cases analyzed by her team, attorneys are not equipped to provide proper representation and it can cause severe consequences for a public defender’s clients.
Hamer said the strain causes critical gaps in the criminal justice system.
“The constitutional right to an effective attorney is routinely violated in criminal courts across the country because there just aren’t enough public defenders available,” she said.
According to Hamer, Lee Enterprises’ Public Service Journalism team requested caseload data from all 50 states to conduct the first-ever national analysis of public defender workloads using the new National Public Defense Workload Standards.
Subsequently, in her analysis, Hamer also found that Oklahoma public defenders are carrying some of the highest caseloads across the country.
An analysis of the data and recommendations for reducing public defender workloads across the nation is explained a recent podcast by Lee Enterprises.
“If a public defender has three times more cases than they can ethically handle, which is what my report found, then they have to pick and choose between their clients and between their cases and pick the clients that they want to spend a lot of time on,” she added.
“But there are a whole other group of clients who [may] get neglected and who do not get the defense that they are constitutionally entitled to.”
Under standards set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals in 1973, public defenders can handle a maximum 150 felony cases per year.
Oklahoma County’s Chief Public Defender Robert Ravitz reviewed some of the data compiled by Lee Enterprises with KFOR.
While he said he disagreed with the breakdown, he recognized the challenges for his staff.
“I was talking to a lawyer he’s carrying right now. He’s got 90 open felony cases. So obviously, it’s a heavy workload that pays not great,” said Ravitz on Thursday in an interview with KFOR.
Ravitz also pointed to turnover in his office and lack of staffing in other departments.
“We’re having difficult time right now by lawyers getting into the jail because they don’t have enough staff. If you can’t see your client, you can’t come up with a defense,” he continued while saying be believed additional resources need to be allocated, all around.
“It’s important to recognize that by and large, nationally, public defenders are underfunded or need additional resources to give the quality representation that we believe people are entitled to in this country,” he added.