Washington, DC (Nov. 16, 2017) -- In order to determine whether defenders in Rhode Island are facing a caseload crisis, the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL), the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants (ABA SCLAID), and the accounting firm of BlumShapiro, undertook an assessment of the Rhode Island Public Defender system ("RIPD"). The findings of this study, along with the underlying data and analysis are detailed in The Rhode Island Project: A Study of the Rhode Island Public Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards. Based upon the data, the RIPD would require 136 full-time equivalent attorneys to provide the necessary minimum level of representation needed for the average 15,000 plus new cases assigned each year. As of July 2017, there were only 49 public defenders in the entire state.
The Sixth Amendment's promise that every person accused of a crime is entitled to counsel is a hollow one when the attorney appointed lacks the time and resources to provide meaningful representation. "That a person who happens to be a lawyer is present at trial alongside the accused . . . is not enough to satisfy the constitutional command." Strickland v. Washington. Excessive caseloads inhibit public defenders from meeting their constitutional obligation to provide effective assistance of counsel.
"This collaborative study reveals a profound and dramatic understaffing of the Rhode Island Public Defender system that demands urgent and immediate attention by policymakers in that state," said NACDL President Rick Jones. "It is no secret that public defender systems across the nation are understaffed and under-resourced. NACDL will continue working tirelessly to demonstrate the contours of the crisis in order that the Sixth Amendment rights of all people in this nation are secured."
ABA President Hilarie Bass said: "The Rhode Island workload study shows once again that excessive caseloads routinely place these hard-working attorneys in jeopardy of violating their professional responsibility to provide competent counsel. When this occurs, ABA policy both requires public defenders to seek relief and encourages courts to do what is necessary to preserve the integrity of our justice system. This report not only draws attention to a national problem that threatens this nation's promise of equal justice, but it also provides guidance on how to address it."
The Rhode Island Project: A Study of the Rhode Island Public Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards is available for download at www.nacdl.org/rhodeislandproject.
This project was supported by a grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance. Points of view or opinions in this document are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position or policies of the U.S. Department of Justice.
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The National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers is the preeminent organization advancing the mission of the criminal defense bar to ensure justice and due process for persons accused of crime or wrongdoing. A professional bar association founded in 1958, NACDL's many thousands of direct members in 28 countries – and 90 state, provincial and local affiliate organizations totaling up to 40,000 attorneys – include private criminal defense lawyers, public defenders, military defense counsel, law professors and judges committed to preserving fairness and promoting a rational and humane criminal legal system.