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Study Recommends New Public Defender Standards, Guidelines

The half-a-century old national standards for public defender caseloads are too broad and high to allow for adequate representation of indigent clients, says a new study. It suggested more nuanced guidelines and new standards, Reuters reports. The new standards include dividing a public defenders’ available annual hours by the average amount of time needed to handle different types of cases. They also include more case categories than the existing standards to account better for how many hours are needed for each. “The results of this study strongly suggest that the caseloads of public defense attorneys are more excessive than previously thought and that decisive action is needed to ensure that public defense clients receive the effective assistance of counsel required by the Constitution,” read the National Public Defense Workload Study.


Under the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals set in 1973, public defenders can handle a maximum 150 felony cases per year; 400 misdemeanor cases; 200 mental health cases; 200 juvenile cases; or 25 appeals annually. Those categories give equal weight to burglary, sexual assault, and homicide cases. Under those maximums, a public defender working full time would be able to spend an average of just 14 hours on felony cases. An expert panel considered the expansion of digital discovery and forensic evidence in devising the new standards. Instead of a single category for felonies, it recommended that standards have six separate felony categories ranging from those with possible sentences of life without parole down to “low” felonies such as burglary or simple assault, and assigned each an average hours-per-case. The groups behind the new study want jurisdictions to use the new standards to review their caseloads and reduce public defender overload.

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