Justice and Public Safety Cabinet
Kentucky Public Defenders Experience Caseload Growth for 5th consecutive year
Data released this week by the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy confirms what officials heard in public meetings around the Commonwealth over the last few months -- Kentucky public defenders are being assigned to represent so many clients that justice in this state is in jeopardy.
Forty years ago, in the landmark case of Gideon v. Wainwright, the United States Supreme Court declared “any person haled into court, who is too poor to hire a lawyer, cannot be assured a fair trial unless counsel is provided for him.” As the justices said, “This seems an obvious truth.” Yet decades later, has the promise of Gideon been fulfilled in Kentucky? Since September 2004, Kentucky’s Public Advocacy Commission, charged with oversight of the state’s Indigent Defense System, has been exploring the challenging answer to this question.
The newly-compiled data came as no surprise. After the 2004 Defender Caseload Report showed an annual caseload increase of 12%, the Public Advocacy Commission began hosting a series of public meetings to solicit input from the criminal justice community on the crisis. At that time, defender caseloads in Kentucky were nearly twice the level recommended in nationally-recognized standards.
Commission members attended meetings throughout the state and heard testimony from Supreme Court Justices, Court of Appeals judges, public defenders, concerned members of the private bar, judges, prosecutors, and others. The consistent theme was that of an overwhelmed and jeopardized criminal justice system.
During the 2005 General Assembly, legislators responded to this growing concern regarding adequate resources to represent poor citizens accused of a crime. With an increase of $1.8 million in funding, the Department of Public Advocacy is in the process of addressing the caseload problem by placing 16 caseload reduction lawyers into the offices with the most severe caseloads.
The release of the 2005 Annual Defender Caseload Report reveals that despite this increase in funding, public defender caseloads remain excessively high. The average trial lawyer’s caseload has dropped only from 489 cases in FY04 to 483 cases in FY 05. Overall public defender cases increased by 2.6% from 131,094 in FY04 to 134,584 in FY05.
The Public Advocacy Commission will be considering at its September 30, 2005 meeting a final report summarizing findings and recommendations from the meetings held throughout the state. Among the recommendations is a request for a fully funded public defender system. Public Advocate Ernie Lewis states, “We are a very cost-efficient system but we’ve got too many cases. Every day in Kentucky’s 120 counties public defenders stand up for citizens who are accused by the Commonwealth of having committed a crime. At a time when the Commonwealth is dealing with exploding costs associated with incarceration, it is important that citizens be assured that the criminal justice process is fair, the result reached by jurors and judges is reliable, and that individual liberty is protected. Unless there is significant relief from excessive defender caseloads, I cannot make that assurance, and justice will continue to be jeopardized.”
To receive a full copy of the 2005 Defender Caseload Report, please visit www.dpa.state.ky.us