Law Students Answer to Public Defender Problem?

This is clearly a problem.

As Rhode Island Public Defender John J. Hardiman looked around at the lawyers in his downtown office, he realized something had to give. The attorneys were overworked, providing legal representation for the steady stream of Rhode Islanders who can’t afford private attorneys, and Hardiman needed a way to lighten the load. In February, he sent a letter to the presiding justice of the Superior Court stating that the office would no longer accept any post-conviction-relief cases — those which seek some sort of remedy after a defendant has been sentenced. Hardiman has learned that he would have to file a formal motion with the court to get a reprieve on the cases.

…The public defender’s office, created in 1941, is a subsidiary of the executive branch, rather than the judiciary. The office has a $9.3-million budget this year. By contrast, Hardiman said, the State of Delaware, which is of similar size to Rhode Island, allotted $14 million in state and federal funds to its public defender’s office.

In an average year, each lawyer in the Rhode Island office disposes of 1,517 misdemeanor cases and 239 felony cases. By contrast, the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals suggests public defense attorneys handle no more than 400 misdemeanors or 150 felonies a year. In the 26 years Hardiman has worked as a public defender, he said, the office’s lawyers have exceeded the national recommendations. The number of criminal cases alone referred to the office increased substantially, from 15,168 in 2004 to 19,641 in 2008.

And barring a significant increase in funding to hire new public defenders, this looks like a possible solution.

The judiciary is looking to strengthen its partnership with Roger Williams University School of Law to help the state public defender’s office handle post-conviction relief cases.

Acting Supreme Court Chief Justice Maureen McKenna Goldberg has proposed a partnership with the law school that would allow senior law students to handle post-conviction relief matters for indigent defendants in Superior Court. McKenna also proposes having court-appointed attorneys work with the students.

“In my view, such a project would present enormous and beneficial opportunities for Roger Williams’ law students,” she said in a letter to the law school. “With your assistance, such an endeavor may prove to be worthwhile and beneficial to the students, indigent members of the community, and the judiciary.”

With their passion, zeal and unbridled enthusiasm, law school students will be able to do a great job on post-conviction relief cases.  You may recall that Northwestern law students were instrumental in their Governor commuting over 100 death row cases after students found exonerating evidence in several cases.

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One response to “Law Students Answer to Public Defender Problem?

  1. I also talked about this on my blog after reading the article.

    This is a shocking number of cases that each public defender is expected to handle. Considering that the system which pays court appointed attorneys is also woefully underfunded – some solution is needed.

    Something akin to a legal clinic for third year law students is a great way to give them first hand experience with teacher oversight while helping relieve the pressure that the RIPD is under.

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