By PHILLIP BANTZ
The Keene Sentinel: July 01, 2009
Horror stories involving overworked and under-funded public defender offices across the nation have become commonplace.
The accused who cannot afford lawyers sit in jail for months before public defenders are even able to review their cases. Then they accept plea bargains for lengthy prison sentences because their attorneys were too busy with other cases to negotiate better deals.
The issue has reached a boiling point in at least seven states where public defender offices have refused to take on new cases for fear of being unable to provide a capable defense.
In New Hampshire, the Concord-based public defender office is experiencing the same budget-related hardships as most other state-funded agencies, but remains relatively healthy, according to litigation director Richard C. Guerriero Jr.
“These are pretty tough times, but we’re providing an adequate defense” for indigent defendants, he said. “I don’t think there’s a threat to the necessity of representation for these defendants.”
Fewer than 120 public defenders working out of offices in each of the 10 counties across the state handle an estimated 28,000 cases each year. Caseloads are increasing annually, but the number of new public defenders being hired is not keeping pace.
“We just had a 5 percent layoff statewide at the public defender office,” Guerriero said. “We lost between 15 and 20 people across the board — attorneys, staff investigators, everything.”
One lawyer lost his job at the Keene office, which currently has 12 public defenders, including several who work on cases throughout the state.
This year the state public defender office has a $17 million budget for indigent defense, according to Executive Director Christopher M. Keating.
“The Legislature was very responsible in preserving the essence of the program,” he said. “The funding levels are going to enable us to provide the same level of service and we won’t have to endure any additional layoffs, I don’t think.”
The average New Hampshire public defender is handling 65 to 75 open cases at any given time, but could sometimes have more than 90 cases, according to Guerriero.
Comparatively, the average caseload for each public defender in Florida’s Miami-Dade County has reached at least 500, according to the Florida public defender association.
Frustrated public defenders in Miami-Dade filed a lawsuit last year asking that they be allowed to refuse cases and have lawyers from other state offices and private firms step in to help with their caseloads.
A judge sided with the public defenders, but the decision was appealed to the state Supreme Court and overturned.
Former New Hampshire public defender Michael D. Hulser said he often spent seven days a week in the Keene office and had more than 100 open cases on his plate.
“To say it’s not a heavy burden would be disingenuous. But one thing they look at before you’re hired as a public defender is whether you can handle that kind of caseload,” he said. “I take full offense to the overwork criticism we hear. We learn to budget our time and none of our clients are shortchanged.”
Hulser was laid off in March as part of budget cuts. He’d worked as a public defender for two years.
“The director came to every office and said there was a possibility of layoffs and then one day the ax just fell,” he said. “When I left it was all on good terms. I truly enjoyed my time there.”
Hulser, who has started a practice in Keene, said the state’s public defender office is “one of the best in the country” because of its rigid hiring standards and the training it provides to its lawyers.
The public defender office’s training program, which encourages its lawyers to further their legal knowledge, hone trial skills and stay up to date on developments in forensics and treatment options for offenders, was also affected by the state’s budget cuts.
“We have a two-day training session in the late spring or early summer, and this year it was one day,” Guerriero said. “What we were able to do was adequate, but not as much as we would normally do.”
While he foresees more troubled times for the state’s public defender office, Guerriero said the breaking point is a long way off.
“I think we’re going to get by with what we have,” he said. “Never say never, but right now things look okay.”