Overworked, underpaid

All American citizens are entitled to a series of rights laid out by our Constitution. One of these rights (under the Sixth Amendment) is a right to an attorney if you cannot afford one. These kinds of attorneys are called public defenders. According to a 2013 study by the Brennan Center for Justice, around 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants need publicly-funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction. Because of this, the system is highly burdened. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2007, about 73% of county public defender offices exceeded the maximum recommended limit of cases (150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors). However, this statistic does not even relay how severely overworked public defenders can be. According to ABC News, in Fresno County, public defenders can have over 1000 cases (600 to 850 more cases than the recommended limit).


With the high volume of cases they receive, there’s no possible way that these attorneys can dedicate the time necessary to each defendant for a fair trial. In fact, a 2009 study done in New Orleans found that part-time defenders (on average) spend about seven minutes with each case they get. As a legal studies major, I know that for some cases it takes more than seven minutes just to read it through the first time, let alone analyze it and prepare a defense for trial based on it.


This lack of time dedicated to these cases has a severe impact on defendants, where, according to MSNBC, 90 to 95 percent of U.S. criminal cases don’t even go to trial, but end up taking a plea bargain. For those who aren’t familiar with this, a plea bargain is where the defendant pleads guilty in exchange for a lesser sentence. In this scenario, there is a 0 percent chance to be found not guilty of your crimes because you’ve already pleaded guilty. At least in a trial, there is a chance to have your charges dismissed. However, public defenders don’t have the time to collect the evidence and research the legal principles to apply to the case in order to have a solid grounds for asking to dismiss the charges.


Despite handling so many cases and working extremely hard, public defenders don’t even get paid that much compared to private attorneys. LawyerEDU found that, on average, a public defender makes $78,500 per year, as compared to a private defense attorney whose median annual income is $118,660, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics in May of 2016.


Overall, public defenders are overworked and underpaid, and the consequences of these conditions ripple throughout the American justice system. To fix this, more money needs to be allocated to implementing adequate defense systems. While it may seem like we are spending a lot at first, the money we will save by fixing the system will be far greater (eventually) than the money we spend. We also need to ask ourselves, should justice have a price?