Washington State Bar Association Approves Lower Caseloads for Public Defenders

Overworking Killed 745,000 People in 2016, WHO Finds

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According to U.S. News, the Washington State Bar Association (WSBA) has approved far lower case limits for public defenders. This follows an effort to stop them from quitting, to help with recruiting and to make sure they have enough time to represent each client properly. The new limits adopted at a meeting of the Bar’s board of governors are designed to cut maximum caseloads by about two-thirds over the next several years.

“Public defense is in crisis right now,” Jason Schwarz, director of the Snohomish County Office of Public Defense, told the Bar, which regulates attorneys statewide. “If we do nothing, we’re going to remain in crisis.”

Skeptics agree the system is breaking down but are concerned about finding more attorneys to cover the cases. Many counties, especially rural ones, already struggle to employ enough public defenders and get almost no state funding.

“This could be what bankrupts smaller counties like ours, unless the new limits help persuade state lawmakers to allocate more funding . . . At some point, we simply will not be able to pay the bills anymore.” ~Franklin County Administrator Mike Gonzalez

Attorneys are supposed to be provided to criminal defendants who can’t afford to pay, but public defenders are in short supply and busy. So some people who are presumed innocent are spending more time in jail, prosecutions are being dismissed and county costs are climbing.

The Bar’s Council on Public Defense began working on new standards in 2022. In October, the WA State Supreme Court asked the Bar to recommend revisions for the state. This came after a national report reassessed public defender caseloads and proposed a new way of calculating reasonable limits.

During debate Friday, proponents urged the Bar to make the changes.

“I am horrified that in 2024, in our democracy, in this state, people wait before they get their constitutional rights. My clients sit in jail and rot.” ~Adam Heyman, King County Public Defender

For decades, public defender caseloads were capped at 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors per year. That will change incrementally beginning in 2025 and reach a new cap of 47 felonies or 120 misdemeanors in 2027, with lower maximums for certain case types. A defender working only on murder cases would be limited to about seven per year.


The WA State Supreme Court wields ultimate authority over criminal proceedings and hasn’t decided yet whether to adopt the new limits. The court’s existing rules are modeled on the Bar’s old standards.

The momentum and political will certainly exists. Lawmakers passed a bill this month to train law students and new attorneys to serve as public defenders in rural and underserved areas, but advocates say that is unlikely to solve the crisis overnight.

My opinion? Clearly, public defenders face extremely heavy workloads that prevent them from providing effective legal representation to people accused of crimes. They are asked to juggle too much work against their will, a phenomenon that eventually causes harm to their clients. 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.