Why Are Public Defenders So Overworked?

The sixth amendment to the constitution guarantees all citizens the right to an attorney if or when they face criminal charges in court. According to Michael Skinner, private defense attorneys are your best bet for achieving a desirable outcome. However, according to the BJS, a significant portion of criminality and victimization is concentrated on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum, which places a private defense out of reach for many Americans. If you cannot afford to hire your own lawyer, the court will appoint a criminal defense lawyer to represent you – a public defender.

These appointed attorneys, called public defenders, are among the most in demand lawyers in the legal profession today. They also are some of the busiest and often work much longer hours than their counterparts in private practice. You can appreciate why they are so busy by understanding the constraints of their jobs and the importance they play in the lives of criminal defendants.


Multiple Clients

Lawyers in private practice have the luxury of picking and choosing the number of clients they represent. When they get backlogged with work, they can reduce their client load or close off their practices until they get caught up on their cases.


Public defenders do not have this luxury and instead must take the clients assigned to them by the public defender’s office. Many of these attorneys will represent several dozen clients or more throughout the year and upwards of five or six at a single time, mostly for drug offenses. This case load means that public defenders work long hours and sometimes do not get a day off even on the weekends.


Limited Funds

Public defenders are also busier than private attorneys because they have fewer funds with which to build a criminal defense for clients. Their office may allot them a fraction of the money that private practice lawyers have available to them. They cannot charge by the hour or demand a retainer fee as their counterparts in the private legal sector.


Even so, they are obliged to do the best they can with what the PD office has given to them to spend. They have to work harder and be more resourceful with those funds when defending their clients.



Finally, public defenders keep themselves busy because many use their time in the PD office as a formal training experience. They want to learn the proverbial ropes of defending clients before moving onto private practice. When they stay busy and gain expertise, they have more impressive resumes to present to law firms to which they apply for jobs.



A basic rule of economics is that, for any scarce good, you can have two of the following three things: affordability, universality, and quality. Just two. As long as the United States furnishes universal access to public defenders at little or no cost, there will be shortages. However, we can alleviate some of the stress on these overworked, underpaid heroes by reworking criminal codes to treat drug crimes as health crises, rather than criminal acts.


Public defenders often work more hours and do more with less money than lawyers who have their own private practices or work for law firms. However, these attorneys are also important in fulfilling the Constitutional rights guaranteed to everyone.

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