Overworked and underpaid: A public defender crisis

    Defendant waiting in court .jpg

    Overworked and underpaid – it’s a common theme among public defenders across the country.

    Many struggle to handle high caseloads while dealing with a lack of funding and resources

    “It’s very hard for public defenders offices to recruit and retain public defenders because of the low salaries,” Stacy Scott, Public defender for the 8th judicial circuit said.

    In Alachua County, the public defender's office handles nearly 16,000 cases a year.

    It means that public defenders like Joy Danne are taking on 200 to 400 felony cases a year.

    “The case load definitely impacts how much time you can dedicate to each individual case. I wish I had more time to spend on each case. Sometimes that may make a difference,” Danne said.

    National standards recommend that public defenders handle no more than 150 felony cases in a year.

    However, the Department of Justice found 73 percent of county-based public defender offices don’t have enough attorneys to meet these standards.

    “I need more attorneys and I need more support staff so that I can bring those caseloads down,” Scott said.

    But high caseloads aren’t just hard on the attorneys – they can come at high cost for the defendants.

    Defendants like Javbriki Dickerson say they end up pleading guilty to crimes they didn’t commit to avoid the risk of a longer sentence.

    “To settle these cases as quickly as possible they come up with a plea deal system. But however, when a person is innocent they use it as a terror tactic,” Dickerson said.

    Public defenders said in order to try more cases they need more funding for litigation and experts.

    “To be able to consult with experts or to pay for simple things like transcripts for depositions is important to providing the best defense we possibly can,” Danne said.

    Stacy Scott, public defender for the 8th judicial circuit, takes the fight for funding to Tallahassee each year -- asking the Florida House and Senate to appropriate more funds.

    While that fight will continue, Scott says the fight for defendants isn’t over until everyone has a fair shot at justice.

    “When we know that everyone is receiving equal justice and getting a fair shot at equal justice then it helps us all have confidence in our criminal justice system.”

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