Law & Fiction — the state of public defender systems

Black question mark on white background

I gave a talk on common mistakes fiction writers make about the law last night to the Puget Sound chapter of Sisters in Crime last night, and while we didn’t talk about public defender systems, when I saw this profile of a young public defender on the Washington State Bar website, Walking in Their Shoes: A Day in the Life of a Spokane City Public Defender, I remembered other articles I’d seen recently, and thought a quick roundup might be useful.

Public defender systems around the country are facing enormous pressures. So, honestly, are prosecutors’ offices. Work loads are high, pay scales are low, and the inherent stresses of the job have worsened with repeated attacks on the judicial system by some public officials. The Washington Post reports that the DC Public Defender Office is instituting mandatory furloughs. The Seattle Times published this piece on the breakdown of the state’s public defender system and reported on a recent proposal to reduce case loads.

Prosecutors’ offices have faced some of the same issues, as noted in this article from the Flathead Beacon reporting that although the public defense system in my valley is functioning well, the system is struggling in other communities in Montana, and our local prosecutor’s office is having trouble with recruitment and case loads, in part because of chronically low pay. I’m aware of several criminal trials that have been put off repeatedly because the prosecutor is so badly understaffed; several homicide cases had to be turned over to the state Criminal Justice bureau for prosecution, a rare move, because the local office could not try the case within the timeframe needed to preserve the defendant’s right to a speedy trial.

Should this affect your fictional lawyers and defendants? Maybe, maybe not. But it does affect all of us as citizens, and understanding the issues will help you write more authentically about the system and the people who work so hard to make it work.

Saturday Creativity Quote — on creative confidence

Mixed floral bouquet -- author photo, taken at Pike Place Market
author photo, taken at Pike Place Market

I subscribe to the newsletter of Tiffany Yates Martin, an editor, teacher, and writer. She recently wrote about meeting artist and illustrator Bob Eckstein at the 2024 Erma Bombeck Writers’ Conference, and talking with him about his work. One topic was creative confidence—although that’s my term, not theirs—and I very much appreciated this observation:

“[I]t’s more than simply believing in yourself. It means allowing yourself a free hand in your initial creative efforts, knowing that you have the talent and skill and persistence to be able to continue to hone it in subsequent revisions to make it what you want it to be. That kind of faith is freeing, allowing you to take chances, to loose your wildest imagination, to risk failing because you know it doesn’t make you a failure. It’s simply one step on the road to success.”

It’s a natural follow-up to last week’s quote about perseverance, because you get confidence not from rubbing a magic shamrock, but from doing the work.

Although rubbing magic shamrocks never hurts. .

BLIND FAITH is a Kindle Daily Deal, today only! 

I love every book I’ve written, each for a different reason. But Blind Faith — sparked by memory that haunted me for more than forty years — may be my favorite. (Don’t tell the other books I said that.) And the Kindle version is only 2.99 today only, Saturday, June 1. 
From the cover:
Long-buried secrets come back with a vengeance in a cold case gone red-hot in Agatha Award-winning author Alicia Beckman’s second novel, perfect for fans of Laura Lippman and Greer Hendricks. For decades, the unsolved murder of Father Michael Leary has haunted Billings, Montana, the community he served. Who summoned the priest late one autumn night, then left his body in a sandstone gully for the ravens and other wild scavengers?
And it’s haunted no one more than Lindsay Keller, who admired and confided in him as a teenager. Compelled by his example to work for justice, she became a prosecutor. But after a devastating case left her shattered, she fled the rough-and-tumble for the safety of a desk, handling real estate deals and historic preservation projects. Good work, but not what she’d dreamed of. Now Lindsay finds herself in possession of the priest’s wallet, the photo of a young girl tucked inside. She’s sure she knows the girl, and that it’s tied to his death. But how? Detective Brian Donovan, a hot-shot Boston transplant, would like nothing more than to solve the county’s coldest case. Probing the life and death of Father Leary takes Lindsay and Donovan deep into long-simmering tensions in this seemingly-peaceful place. Then another woman far away digs up unexpected clues about her own family’s past—a history rooted in a shocking truth—and her questions bring her to Lindsay and the detective. But the dangerous answers could rock the community to its very core.