- Associated Press - Friday, March 28, 2014

JONESBORO, Ark. (AP) - Public defenders in Jonesboro say they are concerned about the high volume of cases their office handles.

The three full-time public defenders in northeastern Arkansas’ Craighead County are handling nearly 600 felony cases, and another 340 cases are handled by part-time public defenders, The Jonesboro Sun reported Friday (https://bit.ly/P2aH42 ).

“We’re obviously concerned, and we could always use more people,” said Bill Howard, who manages the public defenders. “It seems like (the cases) just keep coming in. They talk about crime statistics going down, but we sure keep getting them. … The file drawers in my desk just keep expanding.”

In addition to felonies, public defenders also handled 1,396 juvenile cases, 424 misdemeanor cases and 66 civil commitments in mental health court from July 2012 to June 2013.

Circuit Judge Lee Fergus said he believes local public defenders are overloaded but still do a good job representing the accused.

“They are prepared. I don’t think their clients are suffering from it,” Fergus said. “They fight like the dickens.”

Public defender Charlene Henry said high caseloads are a concern statewide.

“Do we have a lot of cases? Yes. But I love my job, and I love my clients,” she added. “I don’t go forward with any of my cases until they are ready.”

Prosecutor Scott Ellington said that while caseloads for everyone are high, the public defender system at least ensures that defendants are represented by knowledgeable, experienced attorneys.

The nonprofit National Legal Aid and Defender Association has a set of guidelines for what it considers appropriate workloads for appointed counsel.

“The caseload of a public defender office should not exceed the following: felonies per attorney per year: not more than 150; misdemeanors (excluding traffic) per attorney per year: not more than 400; juvenile court cases per attorney per year: not more than 200; Mental Health Act cases per attorney per year: not more than 200; and appeals per attorney per year: not more than 25,” according to the group.

So, by the association’s standards, Craighead County public defenders are spread thin.

Multiple attempts by the newspaper to reach Arkansas Public Defender Commission Executive Director Gregg Parrish were unsuccessful.


Information from: The Jonesboro Sun, https://www.jonesborosun.com

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