LOS ANGELES – A new national study released on public defender workloads lays bare the dearth of resources provided to the 80% of people accused of crimes who cannot afford to hire attorneys in Los Angeles and beyond.
The National Public Defense Workload Study was published last week by The RAND Corporation, the National Center for State Courts, the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defense, and the Law Office of Lawyer Hanlon. The study’s stated purpose is to guide governmental bodies, attorneys, policymakers and other stakeholders across the U.S.
Based on available data, Los Angeles County is not in compliance with the new national standards, further weakening the county’s commitment to equal justice and public safety: •
L.A. public defenders are carrying workloads that require 4,160 hours of work or more to effectively represent their clients. That is more than double the amount of work hours available in a year, assuming no vacation or sick time is taken.
The study recommends public defenders should carry no more than 59 low-level felony cases per year and many L.A. public defenders have well over double that amount.
Workloads in some Southern California counties–including L.A.– are more than two or three times higher than the national standards. These findings underscore how far SoCal counties are from fulfilling the constitutional mandates of effective counsel, and how urgent it is for counties to prioritize bridging these critical gaps.
“Public defenders in Los Angeles are overburdened with too many cases, while having access to too few resources,” said Garrett Miller, president of the Los Angeles County Public Defenders Union – Local 148. “These standards confirm what we already knew–our office is operating hundreds of attorneys short–resulting in impossible workloads.
This undermines our ability to provide constitutionally mandated representation under the Sixth Amendment and threatens the integrity of the entire criminal legal system.” The consequences of excessive public defense workloads and insufficient resources fall most heavily on low-income Black, brown and immigrant defendants who are less likely to be able to afford to hire an attorney and often face charges and sentences disproportionately more severe than white counterparts.
“County leaders must prioritize funding, workload controls, standards and data for public defense so that everyone in Los Angeles can access a lawyer who has time to zealously defend them,” said Jess Farris, senior policy counsel at the ACLU of Southern California.
California has already been the site of multiple ACLU lawsuits challenging the state’s public defense systems, which fail to meet minimum constitutional requirements to provide effective assistance of counsel.
In 2020, the ACLU settled a case brought against the state and Fresno County based in part on Fresno’s excessive caseloads and the resulting consequences to indigent defendants. Kern County is currently the subject of another ACLU lawsuit, where tens of thousands of people have appeared in court and pleaded guilty to crimes without even speaking to an attorney. Riverside County was sued earlier this year by the ACLU for refusing to respond to requests concerning how it provides competent legal counsel to indigent defendants.
Read the study: https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RRA2559-1.html ###