Atlanta’s Public Defender’s Office and the Limitations of Justice

July 26, 2010  |  

A July 6 NY Times article pointed to the cracks in Georgia’s broken public defender’s system. If the case of Troy Davis wasn’t enough to tip us off that disadvantaged folks get a bum deal in this state’s legal system, the article details miscarriages of justice in everything from prosecutors assigning defense attorneys for the accused to people waiting years to go to trial. For cases tried in the Atlanta Municipal Court, the scenario seems no less bleak. Aside from performing very difficult but important, often thankless work, the Atlanta Public Defender’s Office seems stretched just as thin as its state counterpart.

The department charged with the mission of providing “zealous and uncompromised advocacy to all clients who cannot afford to hire counsel” lists their projected number of assigned cases to be 15,000 during the 2010 fiscal year. An attorney for the office has ball parked the actual number of tried cases to be somewhere near 31,000 just in 2010. Categorically, they’re broken down to about 900 DUI cases for each attorney, 1800-2000 loitering cases, among others.

The American Bar Association’s first guideline to avoiding excessive workloads for Public Defenders includes whether or not “sufficient time is devoted to interviewing and counseling clients” and “whether prompt interviews are conducted of detained clients and of those who are released from custody.” Fair and adequate defense is essential to justice within our legal system. It is a constitutional right. While I’m sure the nine attorneys hired by the City are skilled professionals, even the smaller sum of 15,000 cases averages out at 1833 for each of the 9 lawyers per year. The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals recommends defenders try a maximum of 150 felonies, 400 misdemeanors, 200 juvenile court cases, 200 mental health cases or 25 appeals annually. Their recommendation adds up to 975 cases per year and the City of Atlanta’s public defenders are averaging almost double that.

It is an unenviable workload to say the least but made even less desirable when considering the office is composed of so few employees. Currently, it’s staffed by 13 full-time employees, only nine of whom are attorneys. The workload, a public defender tells me, is assigned to each attorney according to the capacity of the support staff. By that, I suppose he means the four full-time employees defined in the 2011 budget as admin and legal support, the high school interns from the Mayor’s Youth Program, or the 3rd year law students that are being actively recruited to try cases next year.

According to the recently adapted budget, the office has a target of 16,500 cases in FY 2011. Presumably, to adjust for the 1,500 projected increase in cases, the office will add one full-time employee (a records analyst) to their rolls. For this purpose, the office will have to do with $29,803 less in their budget for full-time salaries.

The City has allocated $1,183,058 to the Public Defender’s office in total. A reasonable $1,137,317 of that will go toward salaries and other personnel expenses. The commas in that number may make it more impressive in the imagination of an average recession-ridden Atlantan but consider it in comparison to the $3,628,238 that the Mayor’s Executive office has budgeted to spend on supplies in 2011.

I could also make mention of how the office, in the Lenwood A. Jackson, Sr. Justice Center, is on the basement floor of the building and behind a closed door, which is of course behind a glass-walled desk like a ticket stand. This could be about the almost two hours that I waited just to see a lawyer and have questions as simple as “how are cases assigned” answered. And more interesting than my wait might be that of the people with pending court dates who had not yet even met a lawyer. All of those things are certainly worth space on a page and hopefully will be given it but what I think strikes the loudest chord is what all of this says of the city’s commitment to justice

On the other side of Atlanta’s preoccupation with crime – the news stories covering it, money spent to reduce it – is the issue of justice. This administration has responded to the anxiety of Atlantans and put its resources into more policing without much of a matched commitment to “zealous and uncompromised advocacy” for all, on the other end.

Donovan X. Ramsey is an Associate Researcher at the Identity Orchestration Research Lab at Morehouse College where he is currently engaged in research regarding the expression of Black male identity in contemporary politics. He has served as a writer for elected officials throughout Georgia and contributor to several publications. For more of his work, please visit http://www.dynamicstasis.com.

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