A New York Times report shed new light on overworked and underfunded public defenders. It found public defenders in Louisiana assigned 200, 300, or even 400 felony cases—far more than the recommended workload for someone to mount an effective defense.
In McLean County, caseloads are not as high, according to Public Defender Carla Barnes. But representing indigent clients is still a tough job that requires an exceptionally high work ethic and drive to help people, Barnes said.
“Everyone deserves good legal representation. You deserve someone standing next to you, advocating on your behalf,” Barnes said. “When I’m interviewing potential attorneys or staff, I try to ask the right questions to make sure they’re driven to do public defense work. ‘Why are you here? Why are you interested in this job?’ Because it’s very, very difficult. And it can be extremely draining at times. And if you’re not in it for the right reasons, then you probably won’t be here very long.”
Barnes has 14 attorneys on staff, plus paralegal help, a social worker, and office manager. Five outside attorneys also work on contract, including three specifically assigned to felony cases. Around 85 percent of defendants at the Law and Justice Center are assigned a public defender.
For those McLean County public defenders working felony cases, they’re assigned around 90 per year on average, Barnes said. That’s below the 150-caseload max considered a national standard.
But 90 cases is still a lot for one person, and Barnes said that workload can grow quickly for more complex cases such as homicides. For murder cases, Barnes asks her attorneys to meet weekly with their clients.
“I’m always cognizant and aware and talking to my attorneys to make sure they have enough time and resources so they can effective for our clients. Because we owe that to them,” Barnes said.
Barnes has led the public defender’s office since 2014. It has a budget of $1.9 million.
“I wish we were at 70 cases per year. It is what it is,” Barnes said. “I have confidence that if the numbers were to get out of control, I could go to the (McLean) County Board and I could ask for resources to hire another attorney or another contract attorney.”
On the other side is McLean County State's Attorney Don Knapp. He said his felony prosecutors in his office handle about 100 cases per year, and misdemeanor lawyers take close to 500 cases.
McLean County prosecutors filed charged in 2,843 criminal cases last year: 1,330 felonies and 1,513 misdemeanors. That compares with 1,397 felonies and 1,501 misdemeanors filed in 2017.
Knapp said he'd always like more help, but his staff of 16 criminal attorneys can handle the workload.
Knapp is one of 27 attorneys in the state’s attorney’s office. The rest of the attorneys handle civil cases and child support and other matters. Additional office staff includes paralegals, legal assistants and other administrative support.
Knapp likened comparing caseloads of prosecutors and public defenders to apples and oranges because of other duties each has to manage.
“There are search warrants in the middle of the night, by the hundreds through this office, screening decisions to be made, police reports to be reviewed,” Knapp said. “On the flip side (the public defender’s office) has jobs that we don’t have.”
Knapp said his office is sufficiently staffed to handle criminal cases, noting only a small percentage of cases ever go to trial. He said his lawyers do the best they can to keep cases from dragging on too long.
“I can count certainly on one hand and maybe two or three fingers the number of times that I’ve heard from victim directly that want either an update or things to progress a little quicker,” Knapp said. “It does happen.”
Knapp said McLean County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, a group of made up of attorneys, judges and law enforcement, is also exploring ways to reduce delays, such as limiting the number of status hearings before a case goes to trial. Barnes, the public defender, said she’d oppose that because “dealing with people’s lives takes time, and we can’t put them on a stringent timetable,” referring to the potential need for drug treatment or mental health counseling.
Knapp said that could be an effective guideline to keep cases moving along, but there couldn't be a hard-and-fast rule for every case.
“It’s like keeping track of the number of putts and lowering your handicap, it’s always in the back of your mind,” Knapp said. “If it’s ever-present every day when we are in court, that helps move things along.”
He said the county offers deferred prosecution for various non-violent crimes including retail theft and minor criminal damage to property. He said he plans to meet soon with attorneys, judges and law enforcement to more clearly define which defendants should be eligible for deferred prosecution. He said while reducing the court caseload has its plusses, the main goal is to reduce recidivism.
Barnes said she hopes that approach is expanded to include some lower-level felonies. A college student, for example, can face a Class 4 felony charge if they’re caught with Adderall or Xanax without a prescription. Currently, a first-time offender may get probation, but it’s still a felony on their record.
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