Let’s add the state’s public defenders to the list of services affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. And let’s look for ways to strengthen their services.
A recent news story from The Topeka Capital-Journal’s Titus Wu outlines the problem. In short, courts across the state and country have struggled to adapt to the spread of the virus. Many hearings and trials have been delayed. At the same time, the wheels of law enforcement continue to turn, and more defendants are brought into the legal system.
It’s important to note that the right to a defense attorney isn’t some newfangled liberal cause. It’s right there in the Constitution.
The Sixth Amendment reads (in part): "In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial ... and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense."
It’s that last clause — about the assistance of counsel — that’s the key. We all have the right to counsel. Those of us who can afford it will often hire an attorney. But for many that’s unaffordable. That’s where a robust public defender system comes in.
Wu sketches the challenges clearly. "Public defenders in Kansas are already working with higher-than-accepted caseloads, with around 205 cases per attorney in the last fiscal year. That's above a national recommendation of 150 felony cases per year. At some point, public defenders offices can't take more cases for ethical and effectiveness reasons."
Other lawyers then have to be hired to represent defendants.
That’s just the beginning of the challenges. Technology has been a challenge for both lawyers and those they represent. Imagine making videoconferencing work consistently in a corrections environment, while looping in attorneys and courts. Visits to the accused if they’re in jail or prison can be risky, given the virus’s spread in closed environments.
Heather Cessna, head of the State Board of Indigents' Defense Services, which oversees funding for defenders, is asking for support from the state, Wu writes, "totaling around $16 million, for more public defenders, more technological infrastructure and other things."
This seems like a wise move. The right to a speedy trial and the right to counsel is part of the bedrock of our country. And without legal representation, trials aren’t likely to be speedy, either.