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Stressed Public Defenders May Need Mental Health Treatment

Jenny Andrews took an undergrad internship at a public defender’s office and went to law school, studying under several veteran public defenders, “it was really instilled in me how important the work was and how important it was to do it well and really dedicate yourself to it,” she said.

Getting a job in Oakland, Ca., people came in early and worked late, napping under their desks at lunchtime, spending long days in court, and preparing for trials in the evenings. Abruptly, she quit after seven years, saying, "I can't do this at all anymore.”

Working in the field can be at once rewarding, stressful, and heartbreaking. Like other frontline workers, public defenders experience the painful toll of facing social injustice and inequality on a daily basis, Slate reports.

In the decades after the 1963 Supreme Court Gideon v. Wainwright case establishing that any criminal defendant who could not afford an attorney had a right to have one appointed, the culture in public defenders’ offices prized tireless, almost martyr-like dedication to the work.

That narrative is changing in the public defense community, a group that includes not only attorneys but also social workers, investigators, paralegals, and other staff. Public defenders are grappling, at the individual and systemic levels, with the mental health impacts of their work.

Rather than implying weakness, public defenders suggest that recognizing and confronting the mental and emotional toll of their work may make them better at what they do.

At the heart of this change is the recognition that public defenders face mental health challenges. Typical mental health advice—exercise, go to therapy, talk to a friend—is often woefully insufficient.

Structural barriers and under-resourcing take a toll on defenders’ sense of self and justice. They’re exposed to direct and secondary trauma coupled with a lack of education about traumatic effects. Formal mental health care can be inaccessible.

Public defenders across the U.S. are making significant efforts to respond to these challenges.

Public defenders represent clients facing devastating, potentially life-destroying punishments; they witness the effects of criminalizing mental health needs, substance use, and poverty. A 2020 study by faculty of Rutgers University–Newark and Drexel University, concluded that public defenders suffered from the “stress of injustice” or the “demands of working in a punitive system with laws and practices that target and punish those who are the most disadvantaged.”

For every five defendants facing criminal charges, about four will be unable to pay for a private attorney. They will instead rely on public defenders or court-appointed lawyers. There are far from enough public defenders, to meet the need.

In Oregon, the shortage of available public defenders is so acute that, as of October 2022, around 1,300 people facing criminal charges were denied attorneys. Many public defenders’ offices do not have the resources they need to represent their clients effectively.

Public defenders who do choose to seek professional mental health care often face barriers, such as finding a therapist who understands public defense work. Tina Fang, the chief deputy public defender at the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender, cited the question often posed to public defenders: How could you defend that person? “I’ve had therapists ask that question, and nothing will shut down a therapy session faster,” Fang said.

Fang's office received a $250,000 grant from the state, explicitly earmarked for mental health services. The office put part of the money toward lining up therapists who understood public defense work, including a retired public defender.

The Slate article was part of a series called State of Mine, prepared in a partnership with Arizona State University


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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