In two counties in Washington state, publicly appointed defense attorneys for the indigent worked less than an hour per case. They almost never met with their clients in a confidential setting. They rarely performed an external investigation of cases. For the most part, they participated in what U.S. District Judge Robert S. Lasnik called a “meet and plead” system, negotiating a deal and foregoing trial based on the assumption that what they were told by police officers was an accurate description of the case.
In a ruling that could resonate in counties across the country, Lasnik found that the cities appointing those lawyers had violated the defendants’ Sixth Amendment right to counsel, and ordered a slew of reforms and federal oversight of the department going forward. He agreed with plaintiffs’ argument that the current system gave indigent defendants little more than a “warm body and a law degree” and ordered immediate reform and oversight of the system.
Lasnik found the cities of Burlington and Mount Vernon, Washington, liable for not monitoring caseloads, and for incentivizing two private lawyers to accept 1,000 misdemeanor cases per year by paying them $10 less per case, including the costs of investigation, staff, and overhead. Lasnik concluded that “the indigent defendants had virtually no relationship with their assigned counsel and could not fairly be said to have been ‘represented’ by them at all.”
While the situation in these two cities may be particularly extreme, it is all too common around the country. In a first-of-its-kind motion intervening in the case, the Department of Justice described the U.S. indigent defense system as in a “state of crisis.” Earlier this year, a Florida court took the extraordinary step of allowing lawyers to withdraw from cases after finding that they were so overworked that they became a “mere conduit for pleas.”
As in this case, those who represent these indigent defendants are frequently the greatest advocates for better public defender funding, lamenting that they cannot adequately serve their own clients.
In June, a Washington Supreme Court order goes into effect that requires public defenders cap their misdemeanor caseloads at 400 cases, meaning the private firm should have already hired more lawyers to reduce their load. But even that number is at the top end of national recommendations for a full-time public defender, and does not account for the time necessary to handle more complex cases, Lasnik said. Defenders around the country are assigned caseloads that well exceed recommendations. In some cities, lawyers have as little as between 7 and 32 minutes to spend on each case.