Pennsylvania Public Defenders Rebel Against Crushing Caseloads
Huffington Post – June 16, 2012
At half past 5 on a cold, cloudy April morning, Ed Olexa kneels by his front door, sorting through stacks of case files for the coming day’s hearings. Olexa works as a public defender in Luzerne County in northeastern Pennsylvania, and he’s quadruple-booked this morning, which means four clients are scheduled to appear at the same time before different judges.
“My choice last night was to watch ‘American Idol’ or get my files in order,” he says.
Olexa represents nearly 120 clients at a time for the Luzerne County defender’s office, the majority of them charged with felonies. It’s a typical caseload for the office, which is one of the most troubled in the state, according to a 2011 report commissioned by the Pennsylvania legislature. The report excoriated the state system as a whole, calling it obsolete and ineffective, but singled out Luzerne as a place where inadequate training, funding and supervision of defenders contributed to a “shocking deterioration” in the quality of representation given to some poor people.
Public defenders are infamous as the workhorses of the legal system, charged by the courts with representing poor defendants in criminal matters ranging from misdemeanors to death penalty cases. The pay is low, the hours long and the turnover high. Complaints that they suffer from crushing caseloads and inadequate support staff can probably be heard in any courthouse in the country.
But the situation finally reached a tipping point in Luzerne last December, when chief public defender Al Flora Jr. mutinied against the county government — his office’s sole funding source — and began turning down hundreds of cases assigned to his attorneys by the court. Three months later, he filed a class-action suit seeking…[for full story: http://defender411.us/KtrYyy ]