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By Zuleika Bravo

Why public defenders aim for plea bargains

Up until 2009, DNA testing was not allowed as evidence in a criminal case. It has only been 15 years that this type of evidence has been accepted and since then, according to the Innocence Project, a total of 235 inmates have been freed as a result of the forensic proof.

Was there a problem with wrongful conviction? Absolutely, if you base the evidence on the information given. Is there still a problem? Due to only a portion of DNA material appearing in crimes pertaining to murder and rape confirms that this issue continues to linger within the criminal justice system.

Wrongful convictions

Before 2009, it was believed that the rate of wrongful convictions was minor. The majority of these convictions were results of plea bargains, which are also issues correlated with wrongful convictions.

It was noted that due to these plea bargains, the number of wrongful convictions rose and the rate was not a minor issue as once was assumed. Since these plea bargains resulted in undocumented wrongful convictions, the exact number was vague and the reason why many believed the issue to be minuscule.

After 2009, the states began to compensate the wrongfully convicted, "Twenty-seven states plus the District of Columbia and the federal government allow compensation for those wrongfully convicted of a crime, but many of the laws have shortcomings, according to the Innocence Project" (Weinberg, 2009). This helped a bit, but the problem still remained prevalent.

Caseloads turned into plea bargains

What led to the increase of plea bargains was mainly due to the caseload given to public defenders. The number of cases issued each year outnumbers the number of public defenders in a district. Public defenders are given excessive caseloads that make it impossible for them to focus on one case.

These overworked and, in most cases, underpaid public defenders must resort to telling their clients to take the plea instead of fighting the case. This is definitely problematic, unjustifiable and an infringement on their 14th amendment right to a "fair trial." Although this is a reality in today's society, the majority of people believe that these issues fall entirely on the public defender's shoulders.

When analyzing who is at fault to the increasing numbers of wrongful convictions, most of us shift the blame to the public defenders. The fact that nearly all public defenders ask their clients to take plea bargains in almost 90 to 95 percent of their cases, rather than arguing the charges, is wrong and shameful. However, the circumstances they are in makes it difficult to shift the blame onto them.

State finances are not sufficient

When looking for the culprit to this madness, we must examine the root of the problem and that problem is the State's finances. The article Public Defenders in the CQ Researcher states, "The annual cost to states and counties is more than $3.5 billion a year" (Mantel, 2008). This amount seems like a sufficient and perhaps high amount for public defenders, but it is not nearly enough to fund the amount of cases that grow each year.

The lack of funds prevents public defenders to do their job competently and fulfill their duty to their fullest ability. The justice system is overly burdened with 60 to 90 percent of criminal defendants needing publicly funded attorneys, depending on the jurisdiction. Taking on over 1,000 cases a year when the state guidelines state only 150 to 200 cases is a hard task to take on. With caseloads this high, public defenders are not given any time to prepare for hearings much less spend time with their client.

In some cases, public defenders only have at most seven minutes to spend with their clients, which is not nearly enough time to know their case much less their client. Because the system is under resourced and under funded for public defenders, results in the urgency for clients to take plea bargains which then increases the amount of wrongful convictions.

The average public defender's annual salary is roughly $50,000. That is nowhere near enough for them to perform well in a job that requires almost five times their effort for all the cases presented.

It is worth it to consider that if more funds were allocated for the department then more independent attorneys would be interested in taking cases and alleviate the work load from the public defender's hands. This is an alternative to the issue, but if anything were to change it is evident that more funding is required for the department to run efficiently.

Article sources

Weinberg, Steve. "Wrongful Convictions." CQ Researcher 19.15 (2009): 345-72. Web. 3 May 2016.

Mantel, Barbara. "Public Defenders." CQ Researcher 18.15 (2008): 337-60. Web. 3 May 2016.

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