Apr 5, 2009

Good News for Public Defense in NYC

A New York Times article reports today that the state budge contains a provision for capping the number of cases handled by public defenders in New York City. While the cap will go into effect in 2010 and then take an estimated four years to roll out, it bodes well for defendants in the five boroughs.

One poignant comment from the article:

'But Laura Pitter, who worked for Legal Aid in the Bronx from 2003 to 2008, said caseload caps were “great and very necessary.”

When she started at Legal Aid, she said, she handled 70 to 80 cases at a time. Eventually, that number climbed to between 110 and 115 cases, meaning that she sometimes had to make 5 to 10 court appearances a day, she said. Cases were delayed for months or years, she said, while her clients sat in jail or rearranged their lives around court appearances.

She said she left Legal Aid for private practice because she was overburdened and because she needed to make more money to pay off student loans.

“It was becoming impossible to do that job,” she said. “Clients suffered enormously.” '

John Feinblatt, former director of the Center for Court Innovation and current Criminal Justice Coordinator for the NYC Mayor's Office also makes the good point that caseloads have to be considered alongside enhancements to technology for capturing accurate data about defendants.

For more background on the state of public defense in the US, see this excellent article published by the Times last November.