As a former assistant public defender with the Rhode Island Public Defenders' Office, I can state unequivocally that the Office goes above and beyond for its clients and the public at large with limited resources at their disposal. But there's only so much you can do when the Public Defenders' Office is understaffed.
A recent study evaluating the Rhode Island Public Defenders' Office indicates the agency is “dramatically understaffed.” Attorneys in the organization are overwhelmed with their caseloads and that is bad news for many accused of crimes that could lead jail time. The report, A Study of the Rhode Island Public Defender System & Attorney Workload Standards, shows department attorneys are spending 50% less time on cases than they should according to national guidelines.
Bonnie Hoffman, Director of the National Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys, says lawyers are unable to provide meaningful representation when they are overwhelmed with cases. State budgetary documents have apparently shown the caseloads to be excessive for years. Research conducted in 2015 and 2016 indicates that 136 full-time attorneys would be needed to provide proper representation in the over 15,000 cases each year. Currently, the staff consists of 49 attorneys, meaning that the caseload for public defenders would need to be reduced by 64% to allow for adequate representation.
The Rhode Island Constitution has provided for the right to legal representation in criminal cases since 1842. The Rhode Island Public Defender, which began in 1941, is believed to be the first statewide office for public defense in the country. Nationally, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1963 that those facing felonies in state courts have rights to representation. The court has since clarified this right to legal counsel under the Sixth Amendment calling for “reasonably effective counsel” that is based on the norms within the legal profession to be provided at the expense of states.
A spokesman from Rhode Island's Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys says public defenders in the Providence County Courts are tasked with over 60 cases and over 10 capital cases, which involve serious offenses such as arson and murder, to name a few. One 14-year veteran attorney in the Department described the feeling as “trying to keep your head above water.” Thus far, the State has allocated two additional full-time lawyers and one new investigator for the Department this year. Justice Paul Suttell, with the State's Supreme Court, says it is fortunate that a statewide program exists. He agrees the Department is definitely understaffed, which is a problem throughout the country, not just Rhode Island.
House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello hopes this study will lead the Governor to make budgetary changes this year. A spokesman from the Governor's office says steady increases in funding are expected within the budget to maintain a fair justice system. The problem exists in many states. For instance, the American Civil Liberties Union has filed several lawsuits in each respective state regarding the massive caseloads public defenders must handle at any given time. As another more specific example, in 2004, Massachusetts was found depriving defendants of rights to adequate legal representation by drastically underpaying attorneys to handle the cases. This led to many of the accused having their charges dismissed and brought about significant improvements to the system since.
The moral of the story is simple: public defenders are hard workers, but they are overloaded. If you have a public defender, pay attention and speak up when you feel representation is not what you anticipate it to be. If nothing else changes, contact a private criminal defense attorney to discuss your options.