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University of Nebraska Public Policy Center

Lancaster County Public Defender Workload Assessment

Just outcomes in the criminal justice system require capable counsel for both the state and the defendant. As caseloads rise, attorneys can and do work faster. However, there is a cost: rising caseloads ultimately mean attorneys will spend less time on each case, therefore aversely impacting both defendants and the legal system. The challenge that emerged for the Public Defender’s Office was to provide attorneys sufficient time to meaningfully meet constitutional guarantees for effective assistance of counsel.

The problem of increasing caseloads is a nationwide issue. As an ethics opinion survey issued by the American Bar Association indicated, simply asking attorneys to shoulder larger caseloads without being able to spend sufficient time with clients is not acceptable. It is important to assess caseloads to make sure that attorney workload does not undermine the delivery of quality services. However, simply because more cases come before a legal office is not, in and of itself, evidence that attorneys’ caseloads are too large. What needed to be determined was whether the caseload is appropriate in light of the complexity of the caseload.

This assessment provided two distinct products. First, a measure of workload for the Lancaster County Public Defender Office. This served as a template for assessing current (and future) caseloads as well as provided a sound and methodologically consistent basis to determine resource needs. The second product was a set of recommended caseload standards, designed to ensure that attorneys have sufficient time to meet constitutional guarantees for effective counsel.

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