Government attorneys in the criminal justice system are all too aware of the fact that public defenders' offices, traditionally, are under-funded, under-staffed, and under-appreciated.
However, a few recent cases have been filed seeking to challenge those norms and get PD offices more funding to hire more attorneys, reduce caseloads, and provide more funding for litigation services, like investigations and experts. Notably, one of these cases has just been cleared for trial, though one has not been scheduled yet, as the challengers to the Louisiana system not only succeeded in obtaining class cert, they also defeated the states motion for summary judgment.
Funding the Defenders
The Louisiana public defender class action case, Allen v. Edwards, involves all the indigent defendants in the state. Essentially, the case claims that because the public defender's office is underfunded and the attorneys overburdened with excessive caseloads, that the defendants are being denied their Sixth Amendment right to counsel, among other constitutional violations. Indigent defendants often languished in jail for months waiting for an attorney to be assigned.
In the recent ruling, the court significantly noted that funding cannot be used as justification for the denial of a person's constitutional rights. However, the court did note that the relief being sought may not be possible due to constraints on government expenditures. However, in addition to the increase in funding, the lawsuit also seeks injunctive relief in the form of policy reform, so as to ensure that the cases that do get handled, are handled properly and given the appropriate amount of attention and time.
As mentioned above, Louisiana isn't the only state facing a similar challenge over the public defender's office. The state of Mississippi is fighting its own battle over strikingly similar issues.