The Washington Supreme Court's historic order this past month that will limit public defender caseloads is a big deal. The order requires public defenders to certify that they meet certain standards, including caseload limits and experience qualifications.
In Washington every year, there are more than 350,000 criminal and juvenile court cases. In the majority of those cases, the defendant cannot afford to hire a lawyer.
You have a right to a lawyer, and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you. But many of those appointed lawyers are struggling with heavy caseloads — in some cases so heavy that they cannot provide effective representation. In some Washington cities, public defense lawyers each have more than 1,000 cases per year.
So the Washington state Supreme Court’s historic order this past month that will limit public-defender caseloads is a big deal. The order requires public defenders to certify that they meet certain standards, including caseload limits and experience qualifications. The new standards limit caseloads to 400 misdemeanors or 150 felonies or 250 juvenile cases per lawyer per year. The new standards recognize that complex cases should be weighted more heavily and result in a lower limit. Attorneys’ experience should match the type of case they handle.
Good defenders make a difference. Whether it is proving a client’s innocence of a serious charge or finding an appropriate sentence that will help a client avoid future criminal problems, defenders’ work is vital to providing justice.
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In 1981, a study by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that the arraignment process in Seattle’s municipal court dispensed “supermarket justice.” The need to “process cases,” the report said, had clearly taken precedence over the obligation to provide justice. Some cases were resolved in less than 60 seconds.
In response, the King County Bar Association set caseload limits and experience qualification requirements and made recommendations for courts and prosecutors. In addition, the City of Seattle passed a budget resolution in 1989 and then a law in 2004 limiting defender caseloads. The city and the King County have incorporated caseload limits in public-defense contracts for more than 20 years.
King County has become recognized as having some of the finest defenders in the United States. A national study — Criminal Violence, Criminal Justice — referred to Seattle as setting the standard for criminal defense, noting the use of investigators, social workers, an appeals section and senior lawyers to consult on difficult questions of law or strategy.
The Defender Association, the oldest of King County’s nonprofit defender offices, was singled out in a 2003 law-review article with the Public Defender Service of the District of Columbia for its innovative and client-centered representation.
In addition to caseload limits for the lawyers, one of the major reasons for the high level of defender service is the multiple-office, nonprofit structure, which permits both flexibility and creativity that a single government office is not always able to provide. In addition, there have been committed public officials, including Nick Licata on the Seattle City Council and Larry Gossett on the King County Council.
To respond to the court order, King County will need to adjust downward somewhat its misdemeanor and juvenile-offender attorney caseloads. Other cities and counties that are not as close to the standards’ limits will have to reduce more dramatically their lawyer caseloads. That can be done without adding lawyers by diverting nonviolent cases, such as driving with a suspended license. In Spokane, the city prosecutor’s decision to do that cut the defender caseload by one-third. Seattle and King County have similar programs. Some cities, however, will have to add lawyers as well because their existing caseloads are so excessive.
If a case is important enough to prosecute, it is important enough to defend as the Constitution requires.
Seattle and King County can be proud of their efforts to provide effective representation and to promote fairness in their courts. They should continue their commitment to strong defender programs as the new rule takes effect.