Report: Too few public defenders in N.C. hurts poorest clients

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Cynthia G. Lee
Senior Court Research Associate
National Center for State Courts

Report: Too few public defenders in N.C. hurts poorest clients

Williamsburg, Va., June 21, 2019 — North Carolina public defender offices don’t have enough attorneys, investigators and administrative staff to represent their clients effectively, according to a report prepared for the North Carolina Office of Indigent Defense Services (IDS) at the direction of the North Carolina General Assembly.

In nearly every type of case they handle, overworked attorneys, investigators and staff need more time to do their jobs. For example, attorneys need an average of 75 hours to represent a client charged with a serious felony, but are currently able to spend an average of just 42 hours on each of these cases. Attorneys also face a shortage of investigators to interview witnesses, review audio and video evidence to uncover the facts of the case, and review discovery documents provided by the district attorney’s office. The report concludes that public defender offices statewide need 73 percent more attorneys, 10 percent more administrative staff members and a whopping 223 percent more investigators.

The workload study was conducted by the National Center for State Courts (NCSC), a non-partisan organization that created the workload formulas currently used by North Carolina’s courts and prosecutors. The public defender workload assessment included a seven-week time study, during which attorneys and staff tracked all of their working time, along with a comprehensive quality adjustment process that incorporated feedback from attorneys and staff across the state.

Interviews with attorneys, investigators, and administrative staff conducted as part of the study reflect that systemic inefficiencies, such as waiting time in court, exacerbate public defenders’ heavy workloads.

“I set up a meeting with an expert witness, which was hard to schedule,” one attorney said. “I was 45 minutes late to talk to him because I was stuck in court. He was frustrated. I ended up having to schedule a meeting with the expert witness on a weekend.”

The study was conducted after the N.C. General Assembly directed IDS in 2017 to hire NCSC to develop a workload formula for public defenders using the same methodology that NCSC has previously used for public defender offices in other states. The report recommends that the state add attorneys and staff or reduce caseloads, provide social workers in all public defender offices, and reduce systemic inefficiencies such as “calendar calls,” which require public defenders and their clients to spend long hours waiting in court. It remains to be seen how North Carolina lawmakers will react to the report’s findings.

The National Center for State Courts, headquartered in Williamsburg, Va., is a nonprofit court organization dedicated to improving the administration of justice by providing leadership and service to the state courts. Founded in 1971 by the Conference of Chief Justices and Chief Justice of the United States Warren E. Burger, NCSC provides education, training, technology, management, and research services to the nation’s state courts.

National Center for State Courts, 300 Newport Avenue, Williamsburg, VA 23185-4147