Report says public defenders overworked

The New York State Defenders Association released a report in December that says public defenders across the state are overworked.

The report, “An Estimate of the Cost of Compliance with Maximum National Caseload Limits in Upstate New York,” charges that the state is not following its own constitution in meeting requirements for lawyers who defend low-income people charged with crimes.

“It’s been an ongoing issue for years,” said Franklin County Public Defender Thomas Soucia. “It’s not only an issue in New York state, it’s an issue throughout the country.”

Soucia said some states have reported that they don’t have the resources available to represent their indigent defendants. The report echos that sentiment in New York.

The maximum national caseload limits established in the 1970s stipulate that public defenders should average no more than 400 cases per year. According to the report, the 71 public defenders in upstate New York averaged 719 cases in 2012.

The report also states that New York would have had to spend an additional $111.2 million on indigent legal services in upstate counties to comply with maximum national caseload limits in 2012.

Soucia said each of Franklin County’s three public defenders works about 400 cases per year, but that isn’t necessarily manageable.

“It depends on what kinds of cases we’re doing,” Soucia said. “There’s not a simple formula out there. We not only do criminal matters; we do family court matters. Our numbers are at the limits, but there are some questions about whether we do too much.”

Public defenders handle cases involving neglect and abuse, custody and visitation rights for family court, and charges that range from traffic offenses to murder.

Soucia said felony cases are particularly time consuming, and family court cases can be time consuming, too.

“When you’re dealing with someone’s custody of their children, you have to put the time and effort into that,” Soucia said. “Sometimes a felony case could take you hours, days, weeks or months, and sometimes you could have a case, even if it’s a felony case, that could be wrapped up in a matter of a few hours. It all depends on the circumstances.”

Since there’s no way to predict how many people will need defense at any given time, public defenders can sometimes find themselves overloaded with work. When that happens, the county must hire and pay for a private attorney.

Soucia said that’s only happened a few times in the six years he’s worked for the county, but the report says it’s a problem throughout the state.

The report states that in 2012, the state’s 57 upstate counties spent $165.9 million, largely from county funds, to provide legally mandated representation to indigent people under County Law Article 18-B. That money could have have paid for 567 new staff attorneys in addition to the 654 employed that year.

The report also says that money could have been used to bring the 58 upstate assigned counsel programs into compliance with national standards, and that it could have also funded 324 new non-attorney staff in addition to the 297 who were already employed.

Soucia said turnover for public defenders is high because many young attorneys use it as a stepping stone to higher-paying jobs. In the last five years, five people in his office have quit.

“Public defender’s offices are dependent upon the individual counties for funding, and there’s always a turnover rate,” Soucia said. “You’re looking at people, they come in for a few years, they get the experience, and they move on to something else.”

One way to fill in the gaps is to apply for a grant.

“We’ve been working on that (a grant) in Franklin County and in other counties in the northern part of the state to try to get funding, and we have an application in at the moment for a grant that could make up to $300,000 available to us,” Soucia said.

The county is competing with 47 other upstate counties for the grant. If successful, the grant would mean more materials for the office and more support staff, including a paralegal customer service liaison, a part-time clerk and more resources for investigative services.

More resources would mean public defenders could better help their clients.

“A lot of times we have to do social work to help our clients,” Soucia said. “It’s not unusual for me. Today I called to try to make arrangements for a client regarding rehabilitation and some inpatient work. It helps them look better for the judge.”

The end result of those efforts is to help people keep their children or to keep them from serving time.

“When I look at it from my perspective, my personal life is to ensure that other people have a better life,” Soucia said. “You always need to look at a person and make sure that you are kind to people that are less fortunate than yourself. If we can do something to make someone’s life better, than that’s what we’re here for.”

Essex County Public Defenders Brandon Boutelle and Bill Tansey did not return several calls left by the Enterprise for this story.

Contact Shaun Kittle at 891-2600 ext. 25 or