A public defender’s lament: I’m failing my clients

Airing out the failings of the public defender system

Airing out the failings of the public defender system

In an oped in the Washington Post, a Louisiana public defender wrote of her crushing caseload and how it ends up punishing her clients. Tina Peng says the upper limit for a public defender is 150 felony cases per year; in 2014, she handled twice that many:

“It means that I miss filing important motions, that I am unable to properly prepare for every trial, that I have serious conversations about plea bargains with my clients in open court because I did not spend enough time conducting confidential visits with them in jail. I plead some of my clients to felony convictions on the day I meet them. If I don’t follow up to make sure clients are released when they should be, they can sit in jail for unnecessary weeks and months,” Peng writes.

She notes that, the week she passed the bar, she began representing people facing mandatory life sentences.

She could easily have been writing about the public defender system in Georgia, which in the past was grievously underfunded and which often delivered substandard representation to the poor. Funding levels have improved in recent years.

Her article has engendered a conversation nationwide, not all of it positive.

Longtime legal blogger Scott Greenfield responded on his Simple Justice blog:

Wait, what? Did you just announce in a major newspaper that you have engaged in mass ineffective assistance of counsel, knowingly, willfully, deliberately?  Did you just tell the world that you are personally complicit in the destruction of lives by making the individual choice to fail to competently, no less zealously, represent your clients?

Writing at Quartz today, attorney Ken Womble responds that “there is a big difference between failure and ineffective assistance of counsel”:

Failure is watching a client go to jail because you simply did not have the time or resources to give him the top-notch representation he (and all clients) deserved. Ineffective assistance of counsel is allowing your client, that you just met, to plea to a felony, even though you know nothing about the case, or about the person.


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