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Public defenders feel squeeze

Conn. cuts create caseload worries

By Dave Collins
Associated Press / July 21, 2011

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HARTFORD - The state’s public defenders say proposed budget cuts will push lawyer caseloads too high and make it difficult for them to meet their constitutional and ethical obligations to Connecticut’s poorest citizens.

Some public defenders’ caseloads are already at or above state guidelines set in 1999 in response to a lawsuit that said the public defender system was so overwhelmed that it could no longer fulfill clients’ constitutional rights to an adequate legal defense, said Deputy Chief Public Defender Brian Carlow. The public defenders’ office cut 42 temporary and independent contractor jobs last week and is planning to eliminate 33 permanent jobs.

“If the caseloads are too big, our people cannot spend the time they need to spend on a case and with their clients,’’ Carlow said. “Our biggest initial concern is cases not moving as quickly as they can when people are locked up.’’

The Office of Chief Public Defender, which handles more than 90,000 cases a year, has about 400 full-time workers, half of whom are lawyers.

After state employee unions rejected a $1.6 billion labor savings deal last month, the legislature told the public defenders’ office that it needed to cut its two-year, $128 million budget by about $9.6 million, or 7.5 percent. But it is now unclear whether those cuts will have to be made after all, because union leaders have launched a new effort to get a savings deal passed.

The public defenders’ office cut all 30 of its per diem independent contractor positions last week, including 16 lawyers, and laid off 12 temporary employees, including seven lawyers. All 42 of those workers helped keep caseload levels down, but needed to be cut regardless of any union savings deal, Carlow said.

To meet the savings mandated by the Legislature, the public defenders’ office is proposing laying off 24 full-time employees and eliminating another nine jobs through attrition or retirements. The agency has not decided yet how many of those positions will be lawyers or when the job cuts will be made.

State judicial officials have compiled budget cut plans that they worry would trample on people’s constitutional rights. The Judicial Branch is proposing laying off about 450 employees and closing four courthouses and a juvenile detention center. The Criminal Justice Division, which oversees prosecutors, is planning to cut 88 jobs. The reductions are part of what public officials across the country are calling a funding crisis for the nation’s judicial systems.

Leaders of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut are concerned that cuts to state public defender spending will lead to the same conditions that prompted the organization to file the 1995 class-action lawsuit that led to the caseload guidelines. The group plans to monitor staffing and caseload levels.

“The US and Connecticut constitutions create an absolute obligation for the state to adequately fund public defender offices,’’ said David McGuire, an ACLU of Connecticut lawyer. “Proposed budget cuts . . . will once again reduce staffing and will jeopardize the constitutional guarantees of adequate representation.’’

After the ACLU’s lawsuit, the oversight commission of the public defenders’ office set caseload guidelines. Public defenders in geographical area courts, which handle some felonies and less serious crimes, cannot have more than 500 cases apiece. Public defenders in juvenile courts cannot have more than 400 cases. Those in judicial district courts, which handle the most serious crimes including death penalty cases, cannot have more than 25 cases apiece.

Carlow said that many public defenders’ caseloads are already at or above the guideline levels.