The State of Public Defense

As Public Defense Faces Crises, Supportive Bipartisan Coalitions Emerge

Two cases out of Missouri’s highest court illustrate their plight and seem to place public defenders in an untenable position: in one case, the court disciplined a public defender who had taken on too many cases so that he could not provide each client with an adequate defense; while in the other, the court ruled that public defenders must seek a court’s permission before refusing to take on additional cases.[]In re Hinkebein, Case No. SC96089 (Mo. 2017), briefs and oral argument recording available at Office of the State Courts Administrator, Missouri, “Case Summaries for September 7, 2017,”; In re: Area 16 Public Defender Office III, No. 1716-MC14505, (W.D. Mo. 2017) Also see “Public Defenders Raise Concerns After Recent Court Rulings,” News Tribune, October 24, 2017; Ian Cummings, “KC Public Defenders Say High Caseloads Mean Losing Their Licenses, Going To Jail, or Quitting,” Kansas City Star, October 19, 2017, updated October 22, 2017; and Bob Watson, “Public Defenders Continue to Seek Case-load Relief” News Tribune, December 17, 2017.

In 2017, however, public defenders did win some reform victories, and a growing number of conservative voices spoke out in favor of adequate funding for public defense.

Top Things to Know

  1. Advocates file important lawsuits seeking reform in Louisiana, Missouri, and South Carolina.
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  2. Conservative support for public defense grows.
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  3. Nevada and Tennessee establish commissions to examine public defense.
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  4. A landmark settlement increases funding for public defenders in New York State.
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  5. New Jersey Supreme Court grants pretrial discovery to defendants facing detention hearings.
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Facts and Figures

On Our Radar

  • The U.S. Supreme Court will decide a case about publicly funded defense investigators and experts.
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  • San Antonio inserts some competition and choice into the appointment of counsel.
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