Law & Fiction — the state of public defender systems

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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.

ETA: For more on public defender systems, take a look at the June issue of the Washington State Bar News.