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Economy Taking Toll on Public Defenders' Offices

It's not just Biglaw attorneys facing lay-offs in these recessionary economic times.  ABC News reports that severe budget shortfalls are forcing public defender offices across the country to fire or furlough attorneys.  Anticipating increased workload due to reductions in staff, some public defenders' offices have said that they will begin to reject cases.  But this solution raises a constitutional dilemma as the Sixth Amendment entitles criminal defendants to assistance of counsel. 

So what's the response to the anticipated shortfall?  Perhaps a budget increase so that PD offices won't have to cut staff?  Or what about appointing all lawyers in private practice to take on cases to help with the shortfall?  Of course not.   Instead, there's talk that judges will punish local defenders for turning down cases by holding them in contempt.  At least in Florida, state law provides that judges may not allow a public defender to withdraw from a case based only on inadequate funding or excess workload.

In the meantime, here's my proposal:  redistribution.  Why not take those new biglaw attorneys now out of work and dispatch them to jurisdictions where representation is needed?  I don't intend to demean the work of public defenders by suggesting that new attorneys can do their job. But at a minimum, these new lawyers could could handle simpler cases or take on some of the grunt work and research to help alleviate the public defenders'  work load.  Associates would get some hands-on experience and a snapshot of what the criminal system is like, and public defenders would get some needed relief.  What do you think?

Posted by Carolyn Elefant on June 13, 2008 at 03:12 PM | Permalink | Comments (2)


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