Public Defender Caseloads Examined

By: Lena Tilllett Email
By: Lena Tilllett Email

Counties across the nation are reviewing their public defender systems. Some are learning that attorneys are overwhelmed with cases.

Assistant Public Defender Jessica West is among those speaking for the accused in Douglas County and one of them is Michelle Lopez.

Ms. Lopez said, “I couldn't say that I wasn't guilty. I was guilty."

After drinking with friends at her home one night in March, Lopez said she made a decision that could have ruined her life: she drove drunk.

“At that time I did not think about my children, my grandchildren,” she said. “I think of what could have happened to me or happened to somebody else."

Jessica West said, "I'm on their side when I may be the only person on their side."

Almost every day, West and other public defenders move swiftly from courtroom to courtroom representing clients who cannot afford a private attorney. Most of them are people just like Lopez.

West said, "An individual is so much more than the worst thing that they've done. We've all had bad days and you know that you are better than you are on your worst day."

Mixed in, are cases we do hear about - clients accused of murder, robbery, and rape.

Across the nation counties are questioning if public defenders are too overworked to spend the time needed for each case.

So far this year, West has had 46 felony cases and 86 misdemeanor cases. Private attorneys we talked to say they see about half that number in an entire year.

West told us that her caseload does not interfere with the quality of the representation she provides.

She said, "Just because I'm not by my phone you should take that as a good thing because that means that I'm up in court fighting."

Douglas County Public Defender Tom Riley says his office has a formula to assign cases evenly so that no one attorney is overwhelmed. However, sometimes the courts will assign more cases than normal, causing higher caseloads.

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