Public Defenders: The Hazards of Client to Attorney Ratios

Media used: Broken Justice Podcast, PBS, November 5, 2019, LINK

          The media source I used is the first episode of a podcast titled Broken Justice. This podcast discusses the issues surrounding the public defender system nationwide and the impact these difficulties have on the indigent defendants that are represented by the overworked public defenders. This particular episode includes interviews with a public defender named Jeff Esparza and his client Kevin Shepard in which they share their experience in Kansas City, Missouri and the impacts it had on Shepard’s life.
The case in question was a charge of the unlawful use of a firearm. With a charge as serious as this Shepard needed an attorney but, since he could not afford one, he applied for a public defender. While waiting for his public defender Shepard had to wait in the jail without the ability to post bail or personally negotiate his release based on his financial situation. Under these circumstances, he waited in jail for nearly two months before Esparza was assigned to his case despite the lawyer having over 100 pending felony cases at the time. Esparza attempted to refuse the case in order to ensure that his existing clients and Shepard would be able to receive the counsel they deserve only to have the judge knowingly deny his request and further burden the struggling public defender.

It took 118 days after initial arrest for Shepard to be released to no home and no property. It was nearly a year after his arrest and Shepard was still in the preliminary stages of the process, still awaiting a trial date. A couple of months later, Shepard passed away. Esparza was notified by the PBS team working on the podcast of his client’s death. Sadly, Shepard’s lawyer had to be notified by a third party that his own client had passed away.

The case involving Shepard and Esparza are not an isolated event, their struggles are mirrored in public defenders offices nationwide. Public defender offices are suffering caseloads at an astonishing highs as evidenced by Austin, Jr. and Martinez (2019) when they mention that public defenders offices exceed the maximum recommended limit of cases handled per attorney in three quarters of county public defender offices nationwide in 2007. When this is coupled with the steady reduction in the funding of public defenders offices it is no surprise that indigent defendants are suffering systemic discrimination as a result of their poverty. They suffer extended stays in facilities awaiting trial due to the staggering caseloads the public defenders must endure. Without the funding the county needs, they cannot hire a sufficient number of public defenders to properly represent them to the best of their ability. The article by Austin, Jr. and Martinez (2019) goes on to reference ways that this burden can be shared between the public defenders and prosecution. The two sides must do their best to work hand in hand to reduce the impact of the caseloads and improve the chances of those who rely on the system to have their rights protected.

An argument can be made that the core of the issue is entirely financial. The simple addition of more public defenders will reduce the individual caseload and allow the county to better support their clients. The Brennan Study (as cited in TCR Staff, 2009) echo the argument that funding is a crucial improvement that can be made to the system. An increase in the funding of public defenders offices can lead to reductions in workloads, access to more and better support staff, and can decrease the staggering pay gap between prosecutors and public defenders. When there are instances in which the public defender in a jurisdiction is earning $15,000 less than the most junior prosecutor (TCR Staff, 2019), it can hardly be called a fair fight in our adversarial system.

I would unhesitatingly recommend the first episode of the Broken Justice podcast to anyone looking to better understand the issues that plague the public defender system. What is included in this work arguably covers only three quarters of the content available in the first episode. Understanding the core of a system so broken that the participants are often called “Public Pretenders” even while working with the same ethos as that of a trauma center: triage. The episode provides a surprising amount of insight into the struggles of the system without minimizing the severity and seriousness of the systematic failures. The episode provides the listener with insight into just how varied the cases that a public defender handles and just how serious the disparity in preparedness and funding can be for an indigent defendant. A highlight of the podcast is the frequent use of interview snippets, increasing the confidence a listener can have in the information they are hearing. PBS has produced a masterpiece of a podcast that will certainly satisfy anyone looking to bolster their knowledge of or start learning about the issues plaguing the public defender system as it exists today.


Austin, Jr. & Martinez (2019, March 27) Can prosecutors and public defenders team up to produce fairer justice. Retrieved from

PBS (2019, November 5) Broken justice, Episode 1: Triage. Retrieved from

TCR Staff (2019, September 9) More $$$s needed to end ‘crisis’ in US public defender system: Study. Retrieved from

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