It’s Time To Apply New & Better Standards for Public Defense Workloads

The State Of Public Defenders Workload: Can AI Fix The People Gap?

With publication of a milestone national study 50 years in the making, the Council on Public Defense (CPD) is immediately beginning to examine how the new research about public-defense caseloads should be applied to Washington’s criminal courts.

“The accused are entitled to an effective advocate and that means a lawyer with time and resources to help. This study underlines what public defenders are experiencing every day, which is a staggering increase in the number and complexity of cases, especially compared to 50 years ago when the national standards were first written. The CPD understands that overworked public defenders impact legal outcomes for the accused and the fairness of the criminal legal system. The CPD has already begun the work of adapting this study to Washington law.” ~Jason Schwarz, Esq., CPD Chair and Director of the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense.

The CPD is a committee of the Washington State Bar Association, established in 2004 to address challenges that impact the state’s public defense system. The Washington Supreme Court tasks the state bar, through the CPD, to make recommendations regarding public defense caseloads and performance guidelines. The Court puts those recommendations into practice in courts via Superior Court Criminal Rule (CrR) 3.1 (Standards for Indigent Defense).

Since its inception, the CPD has regularly recommended updates to CrR 3.1, but the underlying standards are based on a 1973 study from the National Advisory Commission. The new study is the product of a partnership among the Rand Corporation, the National Center for State Courts, and the American Bar Association; it was released on Sept. 12 with comprehensive research that suggests public defenders are working far too many cases and their cases continue to grow more complex. These standards are not binding on any jurisdiction but act as a model.

“The state bar is uniquely situated to convene stakeholders in the legal community to make sure our court rules support actual justice. The Council on Public Defense exemplifies that work and oversees a process that is critically important: Fleshing out standards that will support the state’s constitutional obligation to provide ‘adequate’ legal counsel to anyone facing a criminal charge. What we are talking about here is how long a person might have to wait to get their day in court, and the quality of their defense. Those are among the foundations of criminal justice.” ~Washington State Bar Association President Hunter Abell.

The CPD expects to shepherd the new model standards to present a recommendation for rule changes to the Washington Supreme Court for consideration and adoption. The CPD aims to have draft recommendations by the end of the year.

CPD has been raising the flag about excessive defender workloads for years, and the new study comes amid a flurry of state and national events highlighting the problem:

My opinion? This is excellent and refreshing news. Public defenders have been eagerly waiting for these new standards—for more than 50 years, in fact. The CPD is eager to get to work to bring them to bear in Washington courts. While public defenders are some of the most committed, compassionate, and passionate lawyers, excessive workloads have resulted in burnout and the loss of great advocates and colleagues. Applying this study to the Washington legal landscape will assist us in assuring that assigned counsel have the time to advocate for accused.

Please contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.