Report: Indiana public defender caseload standards likely too high

Caseload standards imposed by the Indiana Public Defender Commission are likely higher than the caseloads public defenders should carry, meaning current practices do not give public defenders sufficient time to provide effective representation.

That’s according a report released Tuesday by the commission, in conjunction with the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants and Crowe LLP. In some cases, current caseload standards were nearly four times greater than the caseloads defenders should actually carry.

“The Commission’s public defense caseloads are based on national standards and assumptions, so some changes were expected,” Derrick Mason, a senior staff attorney with the Public Defender Commission, said in a news release. “However, the extent of some deficiencies was surprising. Commission staff will consider the results and seek further input from the public defense community before proposing changes to Indiana’s public defense caseload standards.”

Currently, 64 of Indiana’s 92 counties participate in the commission’s reimbursement program. Under that program, counties that align public defense caseloads with commission standards receive a percentage-based reimbursement for certain case types.

The study — “The Indiana Project: An Analysis of the Indiana Public Defense System and Attorney Workload Standards” — utilized the Delphi Method to compare the commission’s standards to the caseloads defenders think they should actually carry. Groups known as “Delphi panels” were comprised of public defenders and private defense practitioners, who “provided professional consensus opinions regarding the appropriate amount of time an attorney should spend on certain case types to provide reasonable effective assistance of counsel … .”

The panels reviewed caseloads in four case types: adult criminal, juvenile, children in need of services/termination of parental rights, and appeals. Each case type included subcategories, such as different level felonies under the “adult criminal” umbrella.

In the adult criminal category, the panel opined that misdemeanor caseloads should not exceed 164.8. The commission’s current standard for misdemeanors is 400.

Similarly, high-level felonies – defined as Level 1 and Level 2 – should not exceed a caseload of 30.5, the panel said. The current standard is 120.

In juvenile high-level felonies, defined as Levels 1-4, the commission’s caseload maximum is 250. The panel put the maximum at 89.1.

For TPR cases, the panel chose a maximum of 99.5, while the commission maximum is 150.

In CHINS cases where a child is removed, the panel maximum is 64.5, compared to the commission’s standard of 150. However, in CHINS cases without a removal, the panel’s recommended caseload actually exceeded the commission’s – 182.9 versus 150, respectively.

There were four instances of panel recommendations exceeding commission standards in the appeals category, compared to three instances where the commission exceeded the panel.

The report does not, however, opine on staffing levels in Indiana public defenders’ offices due to limited data availability.

“Indiana’s caseload standards are a key piece of Indiana’s public defense system,” commission chair Mark Rutherford said in a news release. “This comprehensive study will not just sit on the shelves. It will help guide the commission’s ongoing work to make our criminal justice system more just and more efficient.”

Public defense reform has been a priority in Indiana since a 2016 report from the Sixth Amendment Center found the Hoosier state was failing to provide constitutionally adequate representation to indigent criminal defendants.

Following the 2016 report, a task force was formed to review indigent defense in Indiana. The task force conducted a statewide “listening tour” to collect feedback on improvements to Indiana’s public defense system, then released a report in August 2018 with recommendations for improvements. 

Some of those recommendations — specifically, the creation of regional public defense offices, reimbursement for misdemeanor representation and the creation of a centralized appellate office — were proposed during the 2019 session of the Indiana General Assembly.

Also, the Public Defender Commission recently released a study showing that some contract defenders make less than $6 an hour after overhead costs are deducted.

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