February 1, 2019
The U.S. constitution guarantees that anyone charged with a crime for which a prison sentence is a possibility has the right to a lawyer at state expense if he or she can’t afford one. What has not yet been determined is how many cases can be piled onto a public defender before that constitutional guarantee is rendered meaningless.
According to this article in the New York Times, on April 27, 2017, Jack Talaska, a public defender in Lafayette, La., had a caseload of 194 felony cases.
Of those, 35 were high-level felonies (carrying potential prison sentences of 10 years or more) and each of them should get 70 hours of legal attention. For Talaska, that would work out to more than two years of work. Just for those 35 cases.
Another 35 were mid-level felonies, which should receive 41 hours of legal attention.
Four of his clients were facing life without parole, and each of those cases should get 201 hours of attention each.
The bottom line: Mr. Talaska would have needed almost 10,000 hours, or five work-years, to handle the 194 felony cases he had on that April day alone, not to mention the dozens more he would be assigned that year.
And it’s not as if Talaska’s situation was particularly remarkable: Of the public defenders in Louisiana handling felony caseloads at that time, there were two dozen with even more clients. One had 413.
I think we know what the problem is. And I have a pretty good hunch what the solution is.