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The Heavy Workload and Demanding Duties of Criminal Justice Attorneys

Criminal justice attorneys, including both prosecutors and defense counsel, shoulder immense workloads in their duty to uphold justice and protect rights within the judicial system. The responsibilities and tasks required for each criminal case add up to a staggering burden. Both professional conduct standards and ethical obligations dictate that caseloads for criminal justice lawyers must be restricted to reasonable levels so they can provide effective assistance for each client. However, far too often excessive workloads prevent proper representation.

Caseload Standards and Recommendations

Various legal organizations have put forth caseload standards and recommendations to define appropriate workload limitations for criminal justice attorneys. For example:

  • The National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals set forth a numerical standard in 1973 of 150 felony cases or 400 misdemeanor cases per attorney per year.

  • The National Legal Aid and Defender Association established in 1995 that public defenders should handle no more than 150 felony cases or 300 misdemeanor cases annually.

  • The American Bar Association recommended in 2004 that defense attorneys accept workloads only to the extent they can offer quality legal representation. For public defenders they specified annual caseloads of no more than 150 felonies or 400 misdemeanors.

  • The Commission on Criminal Justice Standards proposed detailed differentiated caseload limits depending on case types and associated workload. For instance, 150 felonies, 400 misdemeanors, 200 juvenile cases, 200 mental health cases, or 25 appeals per year.

  • The Texas Indigent Defense Commission implemented weighted caseload studies in 2015 to formulate recommended workload limits for different types of criminal cases based on the hours required for each one. This data-driven approach aims to shape funding and personnel needs based on actual workload burdens.

While organizations vary in their precise numerical caseload recommendations, there is widespread consensus that the workload for Las Vegas criminal justice attorneys must be restricted enough to enable effective representation for all clients. However, these limits are too often surpassed.

Excessive Workloads on Criminal Defense Counsel

The workloads faced by many criminal defense lawyers around the country exceed recommended limits, sometimes drastically so. Public defenders in particular have dangerously high caseloads in underfunded and understaffed offices. Some troubling statistics on excessive workloads include:

  • A 2009 study found Missouri public defenders averaged over 300 cases per attorney annually. Over half of the state’s indigent defenders exceeded the NACDL standard.

  • Louisiana public defenders in 2012 juggled four to five times the recommended caseload standards established by the ABA. One attorney handled over 700 cases that year.

  • A 2014 review of Kentucky public defenders revealed caseloads two to three times higher than evidence-based workload limits designed to allow for quality representation.

  • In Utah, a 2016 report found public defender caseloads were 300-500% greater than what workload studies indicated was needed to effectively represent clients.

  • Overloaded public defenders in New Orleans handled nearly five times the NACDL caseload standards in 2017, averaging over 700 clients per attorney.

These crushing workloads make it exceedingly difficult for public defenders and other indigent counsel to adequately represent clients. It leads to defendants languishing in jail, rushed plea deals, and truncated investigations – all of which undermine justice.

Key Tasks Required in Each Criminal Case

To understand just how heavy these caseloads become, it is illustrative to outline the array of vital tasks that competent criminal defense requires for each individual case:

  • Initial review of charges and meeting with client to discuss case and begin building trust.

  • Thoroughly investigating scene of the crime, evidence, police practices, background of the defendant, and potential witnesses. Locating exculpatory evidence.

  • Developing expertise in any unfamiliar areas of law specific to the case.

  • Researching likely defense strategies and case law precedents. Identifying grounds for suppression of evidence or dismissal of charges.

  • Drafting and filing suppression, dismissal, plea, or discovery motions. Arguing motions before judge.

  • Meeting with client multiple times to discuss emerging strategy, potential pleas, outcomes of motions, etc. Maintaining open communication.

  • Negotiating with prosecutor’s office regarding potential plea agreements and sentencing recommendations if applicable.

  • Identifying, interviewing, and subpoenaing all beneficial defense and expert witnesses. Preparing them for court.

  • Reviewing all discovery evidence from prosecutor. Researching expert testimony to counter it.

  • Developing thorough trial strategy, including opening and closing statements, cross-examinations, etc. Preparing defense testimony.

  • Numerous court appearances and meetings with judge and opposing counsel to argue motions, negotiate pleas, choose jury, and set hearing dates.

  • Trial preparation including evidence review, witness lists, trial motions, jury instructions, exhibits, etc.

  • Trial conduct, requiring intense workdays of jury selection, evidence presentation, cross-examinations, and courtroom advocacy.

  • Sentencing preparation and advocacy. Gathering testimony and evidence to seek minimal sentence if conviction occurs.

  • Filing appeals and conducting further research if necessary to dispute convictions or unfair sentences.

This diverse array of legally and ethically required tasks comprises the defense workload for a single case. When aggregated over excessive caseloads, it becomes physically impossible for attorneys to perform all duties well.

Prosecution Workload Concerns

On the prosecutor side, excessive caseloads also threaten the pursuit of justice. The workload issues plaguing district attorney offices include:

  • Inadequate funding and staffing shortages given their expanding responsibilites, resulting in unmanageable caseloads.

  • Lack ofworkload standards – prosecutors often carry caseloads based on outdated tradition rather than data-driven needs.

  • Very high turnover given stressful workload, harming effectiveness and increasing training costs.

  • Physical and mental exhaustion from unrelenting workload, negatively impacting performance.

  • Insufficient time for thorough case analysis and preparation, undermining trial readiness.

  • Excessive reliance on plea bargains to rapidly resolve cases rather than conducting trials.

  • Higher risks of committing misconduct or Brady violations due to workload strains.

Prosecutors have a duty to see justice done, not merely accrue convictions. But excessive caseloads make measured decision-making nearly impossible while incentivizing plea deals over deliberate trials. The rights of defendants can be undermined by these workload pressures.

Achieving Reasonable Workloads

There are several measures that can help restrict attorney caseloads and workloads to reasonable levels:

  • Statewide workload studies should be regularly conducted using validated methodology to determine needs of each jurisdiction. These can inform staffing and funding to align with actual data-driven workload requirements.

  • Minimum workload standards should be established through statute, court rules, and properly funded to ensure compliance. Enforcement mechanisms must exist.

  • Public defense systems must have independence from political pressure regarding their workloads and staffing needs.

  • Prosecutors should adopt transparent workload standards to prevent excessive caseloads based on outdated tradition rather than real needs.

  • Grant funding should increase support for critical ancillary services like investigators, forensic expertise, and social workers to reduce the workload burden on individual attorneys.

  • Support staff should be boosted to maximize the time attorneys can focus on legal tasks rather than administrative duties.

  • Private attorneys accepting indigent defense cases must face caseload limits and oversight to prevent overload and inadequate representation.

  • Ongoing training and mentoring programs for new attorneys reduces inefficiencies and workload strain caused by constant turnover.

Reasonable workloads that allow for each case to receive focused, thorough representation must become the norm. Although the plank of excessive workloads is deeply entrenched, through these measures and the commitment of judicial leaders, progress can be made toward workloads that support justice.


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