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The Impact – Could a Public Defender Shortage Lead to Cases Being Dismissed?

Mike McClanahan profile by Mike McClanahan

The right to a speedy trial is enshrined in both the United States Constitution and the Washington constitution.  But in some jurisdictions around the state, there aren’t enough public defenders to handle the volume of cases in backlogged courts.

The shortage is more severe in rural counties which may have a harder time recruiting new public defenders, according to Washington State Office of Public Defense Director Larry Jefferson.

“I think it’s a crisis nearing epic proportions here in the state of Washington. I have never seen as many job openings as I’ve seen in defense and prosecution. And so what that means, that means that cases go unaddressed. What that means is scenarios like what’s happening in Oregon right now where cases have been dismissed, serious cases have been dismissed, because there was no attorney available for that person. If you were held in custody after an incident, there’s a speedy trial rule that says you have to go to trial within 60 days and if that rule is violated, the case can be dismissed. And in Oregon, that’s been happening.”

There are also rules limiting the number of cases a public defender can have at one time.  

“There are certain jurisdictions, especially rural jurisdictions, I’ll say Yakima, where they just haven’t had enough public defenders,” said Jefferson. “They had to tell the prosecutor in the county, we can only accept this many cases and if you go over for this next upcoming month, we have no one to assign. And so the prosecutor has to take into account whether they’re going to file those cases or not. And so when cases don’t get filed, that means victims don’t get their needs addressed. It means if they do file a case, then they’re running the risk that the case is going to be dismissed because there’s no defense counsel available. So we’re really on the verge. Right now it’s certain localities who are having a crisis and we’re on the verge of having the whole state have a crisis.”

A reduction in the total number of law school graduates, an increasingly competitive legal job market, and burnout are contributing to the problem, according to Executive Director of the Washington Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Russell Brown.

He emphasized that the other side of the courtroom is also having trouble with staffing.

“It’s not just public defense,” said Brown. “We need prosecutors as well. There’s a lack of attorneys in Washington, and it is causing a lack of an ability to respond efficiently and effectively to these and victims are the ones who lose the most when that happens.”