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ABA's 'Missouri Project' Quantifies Overworked Public Defender Stereotype

By William Peacock, Esq. on July 31, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Public defenders are overworked. This is not news. This is how it's been since Gideon v. Wainright. It's part-and-parcel of the gig: Represent those whom society doesn't really care about and do it with fewer resources than your adversary in the D.A.'s office. It's a huge reason why being a public defender is such an admirable career path -- you're constantly making chicken salad out of chicken excrement.

But what we don't know is: Just how badly are public defenders overworked? And how much does it affect their indigent clientele?

The answer, as you might expect, is "a lot." And a new joint study by the American Bar Association, accounting firm RubinBrown, and the Missouri Public Defender System finally puts some numbers behind the truism.

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How Short Is Shorthanded?

How short-handed are Missouri public defenders? It depends on the type of case. Though they're short-handed across the board, it seems that Missouri's public defenders allocate more resources to the most severe crimes -- murders and sex felonies -- spending 79.3 and 40.1 percent of the time estimated to be the bare minimum necessary for a reasonable defense, respectively. For most other categories, PDs are short-handed by as much as 85.7 percent, the study finds.

The following two charts are pulled from data in the "Missouri Project" report. The first shows the "ideal" world, where a public defender would have enough time to provide reasonable representation, based on a consensus of estimates by experts achieved using the Delphi method. The second chart shows current self-reported hours of Missouri public defenders:

Estimated Hours Needed for Reasonable Representation ("Ideal" World)

  Client Communication1 Discovery/Investigation2 Case Preparation3 Total
Murder/Homicide 34.6 33.5 38.5 106.6
AB Felony 13.1 18.3 16.2 47.6
CD Felony 6.3 8.4 10.3 25.0
Sex Felony 22.5 17.8 23.6 63.8
Misdemeanor 3.5 4.1 4.1 11.7
Juvenile 5.4 6.8 7.3 19.5
Appellate/PCR 20.3 31.5 44.7 96.5
Probation Violation 2.9 2.6 4.2 9.8

1. The client communication Case Task group includes: in person conversations, phone calls, written communication, and communication with family.

2. The discovery/investigation Case Task group includes: State's discovery disclosures, records and transcripts, depositions and witness interviews, and expert and technical research.

3. The case preparation Case Task group includes: legal research, drafting and writing, plea negotiations, alternative sentencing research, court preparation, and case management.

Self-Reported Hours Spent ("Real" World)

  Client Communication Discovery/Investigation Case Preparation Total
Murder/Homicide 14.8 33.5 36.2 84.5
AB Felony 3.0 2.1 3.6 8.7
CD Felony 1.8 0.8 1.7 4.4
Sex Felony 6.0 7.3 12.4 25.6
Misdemeanor 0.9 0.4 0.9 2.3
Juvenile 1.4 1.0 2.1 4.6
Appellate/PCR 3.1 7.5 19.6 30.3
Probation Violation 0.7 0.2 0.5 1.4

Obviously, there are some startling differences here. For one, it is interesting that almost the entire shortfall in hours in murder/homicide cases comes from client communication. One wonders how many "ineffective assistance" appeals (credible or not) would disappear if these attorneys actually had time to talk to their clients.

It's also interesting to note the gap in AB felonies -- 8.7 hours spent on average versus 47.6 hours needed -- or 18.3 percent of the time necessary to "reasonably" defend a client facing serious prison time. In fact, here's our own table of the shortfall in percentages:

Percent Shortfall

  Client Communication Discovery/Investigation Case Preparation Total
Murder/Homicide 57.5 0 6.0 20.7
AB Felony 77.1 88.5 77.8 81.7
CD Felony 71.4 90.5 83.5 82.4
Sex Felony 73.3 59.0 47.5 59.9
Misdemeanor 74.3 90.2 78.0 80.3
Juvenile 74.1 85.3 71.2 76.4
Appellate/PCR 84.7 76.2 56.1 68.6
Probation Violation 75.9 92.3 88.1 85.7

Why This Study Is So Important

It's one thing to throw out a truism (public defenders are overworked), but it's a whole different matter when you can put numbers behind your claims. Public defenders spend 18.3 percent of the amount of time necessary to provide a reasonable defense in AB felony claims. Or to put it differently, they (and their clients) are shorted by 81.7 percent.

Many claim that Gideon v. Wainright is one of the most important legal cases of all time, but what does its legacy mean if our system is so short-handed that defendants are only getting one-fifth of their constitutionally guaranteed right?

This study puts numbers behind the stereotype in Missouri. Equally important is the lengthy appendix, which serves as a blueprint for other public defender offices to run their own studies. Maybe more empirical proof will help these offices to squeeze a few more pennies out of their states' coffers?

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