The Boone County Public Defender has strained its resources for years. The number of cases assigned to the local office caseload has increased each year since fiscal 2000, and three of the 11 lawyers, including the district defender, are leaving at the end of June to set up their own private practice.
Even though public defenders have help from interns and support staff, handling an average of 150 to 180 cases at a time has pressed some to their limits. “It makes the job less worth it, even though it is a very rewarding job,” Assistant Public Defender Kevin O’Brien said.
O’Brien, who has been with the local office for three years, will replace District Defender Kathryn Benson when she goes into private practice with assistant defenders George Batek and Greg Young. The loss of the three lawyers translates into a 27 percent turnover, close to the statewide turnover of 22.4 percent in 2003.
“The caseload is higher than any time I have worked here, and it wears out people,” Batek said. It’s not so much the volume of cases, Batek said, as much as the speed that cases are moved through circuit court and the practice of assigning the public defender’s office “anything criminal that is not moving fast enough, or is problematic, or no private attorney wants to deal with.”
Many factors push lawyers to privace practice
Batek feels that in his 11 years as a public defender, he has done his part for public service. He said the lack of gratitude from clients, comparatively low salary and “crushing” caseload, are factors leading him to private practice.
He’s also realized that some young lawyers he helped train are now receiving salaries equivalent to what he’s earning after years as a public defender.
Benson thinks raising the salaries of public defenders to compare more with those in private practice in addition to making the caseload more manageable would help retain more lawyers.
Assistant public defenders are paid a base salary of $31,992 to $56,993; as district defender, the top position in the local office, Benson’s salary is $58,332. A good lawyer in private practice can make between $100,000 to $250,000 a year, according to private-practice lawyer James Rutter.
Unlike his colleagues, Young said he is not leaving because of his caseload or salary. Rather, he wants to practice other areas of law.
“There are some negatives about the public defender office that probably lead one to burn out, so sooner or later I would leave the public defender,” Young said. “But this was just a good opportunity to go now.”
Public caseload often much larger than private
Public defender Travis Jacobs said his caseload was as high as 240 cases when there were eight to nine lawyers in the Boone County office a few years ago. In 2002, the state added two assistant public defenders to the Boone County office to compensate for the growing caseload, and Jacobs now has about 175 cases. Jacobs said private lawyers who handle criminal cases tend to have 50 to 60 cases at one time.
Interns and support staff keep the Boone County office afloat, gathering background information, criminal history and client concerns. The office has two investigators, two secretaries, one paralegal and usually three interns.
“The work that the interns do is invaluable, in the sense that they are going out and getting a lot of the basic information that makes the attorney’s time and the limited time that the attorney can spend with the client more fruitful,” O’Brien said. “I think it’s kind of blunted the impact of the huge caseload.”
On the other hand, he says that not being able to spend as much time with each client affects the attorney-client relationship.
“Over time, as you see this increasing caseload, it’s only possible to be so efficient because the attorney-client relationship is a personal one,” O’Brien said. “You counsel your clients at a personal level. They have your trust at a very personal level. It’s not something that transfers to third-party nonattorneys.”
Budget affects attorney-client relationship
The budget, in addition to the caseload, is also starting to affect the attorney-client relationship. Spending by the local office went from $515,835 in fiscal 2002 to $599,456 in 2003, but that increase included the two additional attorneys’ salaries.
With more cases, Benson said, there is an increased need in almost every area, including travel expenses, office supplies and professional expenses like court reporters for depositions and experts to consult.
“We really have to think about what we’re spending our money on and whether it’s something that we absolutely need to spend it on,” Benson said. “That’s a good thing, in many ways, because you don’t spend irresponsibly; however, there are hard choices that have been made that have impacted, for example our ability to represent our clients sometimes.”
Since July, the public defender has not been able to accept collect calls due to financial constraints. Twice a week the public defender takes calls from a direct line from the Boone County jail.
Because the office is not accepting collect calls, the lawyers have to travel more often to the Boone County Jail, which is north of Columbia. When the lawyers are covering clients from surrounding counties, which happens whenever multiple people are charged with the same crime, they try to schedule visits on the same day to minimize travel costs. The lawyers typically visit other counties once every week or two, Jacobs said.
Despite budget limitations, Benson says the office is doing well with the money it has.
“I don’t think there is a quality problem with the representation, but there is always room for improvement,” Benson said. “And if you have the budget to maintain the level of contact that you want, it is always more helpful. And the more client contact you have, the better.”
The public defenders understand the importance of this relationship, but the high caseload strains the time attorneys have to spend with their clients. Jacobs said that sometimes he cannot return a client’s calls for a few days.
“It’s harder on the client because it makes them feel like we actually don’t care what happens to them or we’re ignoring them, when that’s definitely not the case, it’s just a function of as many people as we represent,” Jacobs said.
Trying to allieviate the strain
Two of the new assistant public defender positions at the Boone County office have been filled, but the Boone County office is still accepting applications to fill O’Brien’s assistant public defender position since he’s been promoted to district defender.
Both incoming attorneys do not have experience in the public defender system yet, so they will undergo training sessions. Benson expects the new hires to learn basic skills within a couple of months.
New defenders are trained about cases from arrest to post-conviction. They also learn about client counseling, case investigation, how to conduct depositions and other aspects of the job such as sentencing alternatives and advocacy.
Despite the demands of the office, Boone County Prosecutor Kevin Crane said he hasn’t noticed “any confusion or undue stress from the public defender’s office,” adding that the lawyers “do a good job.”
Circuit Court Administrator Robert Perry said it becomes apparent at times that it is difficult for the public defenders to be in all the locations they need to be. “We have an understanding and acknowledge the fact that they are stretched thin to be in all the divisions of court.”