Reducing Demand for Public Defenders – Good for the Clients, Good for Us
Steve Hanlon gives us a useful way to think about the chronic problem of too much workload. He says there is a “supply side”: defender leaders try to get more resources. Defender leaders keep better data, build better relationships with funders, increase community support, and only as a last resort, litigate. In Minnesota we try to do these things. We are always thinking “get more.” But two decisive state supreme court litigation defeats in the 90’s have led us to work on the “demand side.”
Suppose fewer clients were dragged into the criminal justice system? Suppose the system changed for the better, made itself less harmful? Suppose we could change the context for public defender budget advocacy, so that it didn’t assume that the justice system would just do business as usual, with us racing to catch up to the other parties? Suppose we had some examples of how to try to do this?
Just one rule at the outset—this kind of strategy has to be good for the client. These strategies generally are good for the community and save lots of jail days—a cost here at about $75 a day. But above all they must be good for the client, good for us. Here are 4.
1. DIversion: In Minneapolis we have diversion for the first-time felony property offenses, including various kinds of theft, damage to property, welfare fraud, forgery. It is post-charge diversion so we have a lawyer review the case with the client before she enters the program, completes a contract, and has the case dismissed. Diversion takes about 10|PERCENT| of the felony cases in our biggest county. Other counties have PRE-CHARGE diversion, again reviewed by a lawyer to make sure the prosecution is not just dumping its hopeless losers. These case never go to court at all, greatly reducing the paper trail on the client. We work with police departments on “police diversion” for juveniles—in those cases nothing even goes to the prosecutor.
Along the way, as in drug courts, we need to watch who is getting the benefits.We don’t want to create an alternative disposition that is just a back door out of court for white people.
2. " “civil infractions”/”petty offenses”: Working with the courts, we got all the drivers’ license offenses (no D.L., Driving after Suspension, Driving after Revocation) reclassified from misdemeanors—fine |PLUS| 90 days—to “petty misdemeanors:” not a “crime,” no chance to go to jail, small fine. This saves us from opening several thousand misdemeanor files a year. Also saves a lot of court time, which they like.
3. Probation reforms: Of our 155,000 cases a year, 25,000 are probation revocations. In St. Paul, we collaborated with county corrections to do evidence based “sanctions conferences” instead of court hearings. Clients saved substantial jail time, and our violation hearings in the county went down 18|PERCENT| in the first year.
Now we are supporting a statewide group of community corrections directors who have written a very short, evidence-based, understandable, uniform probation contract. If and when this is adopted it will help clients succeed on probation.
In Duluth, after a client is sentenced to probation, she is eligible for a public defender problem-solving program called “Next Step.”Volunteer social work interns help the client with issues where people on probation tend to screw up:here’s how you get back in school, here’s where you get free mental health services, here’s how you get your drivers’ license back.Instead of a closed file at sentencing, what we want is for the client not to come back.Obviously the volunteers are CRUCIAL; but with the job market being what it is, lots of folks want to have some practical experience, and we have plenty of that to give.
4. Mental health partnerships: We have had a very good relationship with the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They do training for us, we do training for them. They have a lobbying staff, and they put “public defender budget” on their top 10 issues list.
So, when they wanted support for legislation that would get mentally ill people out of jail sooner, we helped.Over the last 2 years we have passed 3 bills.My conclusion, that I can’t prove yet, is that in the long run this will reduce public defender workload.
In addition, working with NAMI makes us less isolated.Public defenders sometimes feel we are the only ones that care—but that’s not true.Collaborating with NAMI gives us a bigger community and a larger context than we had before.
So, how are we doing? Workload is still too high. But, 10 years ago, with about the same size staff we have now, we had 205,000. cases. Now we have 155,000. Of course some of that decrease is due to lower crime rates. But we also have some caseload savings, done through means that are good for our clients, and we have built some relationships with other agencies and communities along the way.
Interested in ideas like these? Come to the NAPD Leadership Institute, August 18-20 in Lexington, Kentucky. Click here to download the registration brochure.