Public defenders overburdened

Champaign County Public Defenders Jeffrey Davis, Pam Burnside and Matthew Fitton stand in front of the Champaign County Courthouse at 101 E. Main St. in Urbana. Online Poster

Champaign County Public Defenders Jeffrey Davis, Pam Burnside and Matthew Fitton stand in front of the Champaign County Courthouse at 101 E. Main St. in Urbana. Online Poster

By Tina Shah

At 8:15 a.m. Feb. 24, the 10-foot-wide hallway on the third floor of the Champaign County Courthouse buzzed with small talk and hushed cell phone conversations.

Pam Burnside, blocking the entrance to 321 Courtroom D, yelled the name of the first client on her pre-trial list. The hallway went silent, 60 pairs of ears attentively listening. Burnside yelled the name again. Still, no one answered. She wrote “No” next to the absent client’s name on her list and called out another name on a day when she had more than five dozen clients to see.

Although Burnside is appointed as their lawyer, many clients were meeting her face-to-face for the first time 45 minutes before their pre-trials were scheduled to begin. She met them in her makeshift office in the hall just outside the courtroom – standard fare for a Champaign County Public Defender.

“Remind me quickly who you are,” Burnside said to some clients, unable to recall their name with so many cases to juggle.

The end of the monthly pre-trial will add 60 more to Burnside’s caseload – bringing the total number of open cases for the month of February to 248.

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Burnside’s life as a public defender is reflective of more than 6,000 public defenders across the 100 most populous counties in the nation, appointed by judges to defend people the court deems unable to afford legal representation. According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice, public defenders were assigned 4.2 million cases in 1999 and handled 82 percent of the criminal caseload across the nation. In Champaign County, two public defenders can easily have more than 500 open cases per month.

Public defenders say the quantity of cases they handle lessens the quality of representation each of their clients receives. While many clients are quick to point fingers at their public defenders when there is a lag in resolving their case, public defenders say few realize the hours, sweat and emotional stress that they invest in their clients’ cases. And lawyers say the ever-increasing caseload the Champaign County Public Defender’s Office faces, coupled with what Chief Public Defender Randall Rosenbaum said is an under-funded office, will continue to hinder its ability to adequately represent each of their clients.

But the public defenders make do with what they have, facing the trials and complexities of their job like thousands of other lawyers appointed by the court each day.

All fought out

Sometimes Burnside’s three cabinets full of manila folders, each with a client’s name inscribed on the tab, keep her busy in the office until 10:30 p.m. – six hours after the public defender’s office closes.

Working for the public defender’s office since 1994, Burnside handles misdemeanor cases, including batteries and assaults. She is assigned the cases of clients whose last names begin with letters L through Z.

With the overwhelming caseload, Burnside said she often can’t seem to find time to speak to all her clients thoroughly in preparation for trial.

“There are not enough hours in a day to see them (clients) all,” Burnside said.

Burnside said she urges her clients to make an appointment to come in and see her in order to review the police report in person. She said the client and the public defender must build a level of trust between them.

“How can I run a trial and not sit down with you?” she asked rhetorically during a recent interview with a reporter.

Burnside said that public defenders should try to help the clients understand their responsibilities as well as the burden of the caseload public defenders are assigned to.

“If they know how to help us help them effectively,” she explained, “the clients will benefit.”

Burnside often encounters clients who she said should not plead guilty but often do because they don’t want to suffer through a lengthy judicial process. If clients took the initiative to make an appointment and come into the office, they could save themselves jail time, she said.

Burnside, a single mother, believes that “harsh” charges that clients receive in Champaign County contribute to the increasing piles of cases on her desk. She has known some defendants who received five to seven years of imprisonment for stealing a pack of gum or a tampon.

The mental stress of dealing with so many clients has sucked the “fighting spirit” out of Burnside.

“I don’t fight for myself in real life anymore and just do whatever’s easier for me,” she said. “It is easier to fight for someone else rather than yourself.”

Although Burnside does not put in the 80 hours a week she did 10 years ago as a public defender in traffic cases, she said she is in the office at least two Saturdays a month and regularly after office hours.

Burnside said she does not foresee things getting easier in the near future, but she continues to stress to her clients the importance of keeping in touch with her.

“Those clients who allow me to, I make a difference,” she said.

Many Sleepless Nights

Champaign County Public Defender Jeffrey Davis said he often finds himself sleeping only a few hours at night because he is constantly thinking about his cases.

Becoming the county’s 13th public defender just six months ago, Davis handles traffic cases for clients whose last names begin with the letters L through Z.

Davis becomes frustrated at night and begins to envision how his efforts in a case he happens to be working on at the time will affect the client’s family, job and household as a whole.

“Here, everything you do affects them,” Davis said. “If you are not zealous and they go to jail, families can be torn.”

He said he often finds himself pondering if there was one thing he could have done differently for each of his clients.

A former substitute teacher and history educator at the Early American Museum in Mahomet, Ill., Davis said he believes educating the public on what traffic activity can cause them to go to jail, may cause people to take fewer risks when driving.

Davis said most of his clients plead guilty because “the truth is that a large amount who commit crime know they did, want to get over it and move on with their life.”

With his caseload up to 325 cases at the end of February, Davis said he has had to make many adjustments since he began working as a public defender.

Davis said he visits the local jails every morning for about 45 minutes, checks his fax machine to get an update on those clients who were put into custody overnight and returns every client’s phone call before he leaves to go home.

Adding another public defender is not so feasible because of the underpaid staff and office, Davis said.

Leeann Robeck, payroll assistant at the Champaign County Auditor’s Office, said the county’s budget for the public defender’s office is $820,634, while the average yearly salary for a senior public defender is $51,304 and $43,095 for an assistant public defender. On the other hand, a private lawyer would make an average of $144,249 per year, according to the Survey of Law Firm Economics, said Traci Moxley from the American Bar Association in Chicago.

For Davis and other public defenders in the county, the money that remains in their hands after student loans, bills and other expenses does not compensate for the amount of work they put in.

Though he was advised by professors not be a public defender in law school, it is what Davis always wanted to do. He hopes to move on from traffic cases one day, but he does not see himself leaving the public defender role anytime soon.

The ever-lasting cycle

At 11:06 a.m. Feb. 24, Burnside walked out of the elevator with case files in her hand, almost three hours after she yelled the name of her first client on her pre-trial list earlier in the day.

As the elevator door slid shut, she began to stride toward her office down the hallway. She was still dressed in her black, button-down top and a printed black and long brown skirt. Her white and blue-laced gym shoes hugged her feet in comfort.

Her face did not reflect a woman who has been battling thyroid cancer for the last year and diabetes for three. Instead, she looked determined – determined to sort through 60 new case files and make some calls.

Before she could walk 10 steps, a man and his mother approached her. He introduced himself and asked if they could speak to her about their case.

She invited the clients to come into her office, appreciative of his first step to building a relationship with his public defender.