CARBON COUNTY — A little over four years ago, British comedian and host of “Last Week Tonight” John Oliver did a 15-minute segment covering the struggles of being a public defender.
“They’re the only people who appear in court more than former child stars,” Oliver joked.
While Oliver occasionally makes jokes throughout the segment, he discusses how depending on the jurisdiction, anywhere from 60-90% of criminal defendants need a publicly-funded attorney. He shows news clips from New Orleans, where the broadcaster states that the public defenders there work on 350 cases a year. Public defenders in Fresno County, Calif. were working on 1,000 cases per year when state guidelines said they should only be doing 150.
That’s almost one per day. This is an epidemic, where public defenders all over the country are being overloaded with work. Instead of spending days, if not weeks, working on a defense, sometimes they have mere minutes to prepare for a trial for certain clients.
It’s racked up nearly nine million views since then, with hundreds of commenters writing about their own difficulties with using a public defender, noting that they couldn’t plead in certain ways or were forced to take plea deals because their attorney didn’t have the time to work on their case in the proper manner.
Oliver described how having an attorney is a right for all citizens, which they are notified of when arrested. Whether they can afford one or not, the right to a lawyer is a pillar of justice, even though it’s only been a law since the early 1960s.
There’s a slight problem with that, though.
Just because an attorney will be provided to you in court doesn’t mean they’ll have the time to really delve into your case, making sure you’re getting exactly what you need when dealing with the courts system.
It’s an issue plaguing the entire country, but Carbon County is especially being hit hard by this.
The county hasn’t had a full-time public defender for more than a year, since John DeLeon left last September. It was never confirmed whether he was terminated or just decided to resign, but either way, Carbon County is struggling.
Now, the public defenders who work in the Carbon County court system all come from Albany County, nearly 100 miles away.
A person who spoke to the Rawlins Times under the condition of anonymity, describing themselves as a “concerned citizen,” noted that one of the major issues is that there aren’t enough legal assistants to help the lawyers, causing even more burdens.
Last year, the Times obtained emails between Wyoming State Public Defender Diane Lozano and Commissioner John Espy where they discussed that Lori Olson, the only legal assistant in Carbon County, was going to be transferred to another county. Lozano told Espy that transfer was due to budget difficulties and that the county’s caseload didn’t warrant the position. She added that the county’s public defender office wouldn’t be hindered by Olson’s transfer.
The concerned citizen felt that both people going through the court system and the public defenders are suffering from this lack of help.
“All of the scheduling paperwork goes through Laramie,” they said. “That’s a 180 mile round trip. Right now, there’s only one secretary in that office, because the other is on maternity leave. That’s too much. They’re missing scheduling things. Public defenders are missing court dates.”
The resident felt there was no one person to blame for this situation, but they also believe that there should at least be one legal assistant or part-time attorney in the Carbon County public defender’s office. While that wouldn’t completely remedy the fact that all public defenders are overwhelmed with cases, it would at least ease the burden on the attorneys working in Laramie on Carbon County cases.
The current supervising public defender is Laramie resident Randy Hiller, who didn’t return the Times’ request for comment. Last year, he told the newspaper that he had no plans to move to Rawlins and that the situation was under control.
According to the Wyoming State Public Defender’s Office excessive caseload policy, the caseload being determined as “excessive” depends on the number of cases but also on their complexity, availability of support systems and the lawyer’s experience and ability.
“Caseloads should never be so large as to interfere with rendering of quality representation or lead to a breach of ethical obligations and counsel is obligated to decline appointments above such levels,” it says in the policy.
Lozano is ultimately responsible for monitoring caseloads.
For now, criminal defendants will have to take the representation they are appointed, but the resident who spoke with the Times worries about the repercussions.
“Thankfully, there hasn’t been anyone who hasn’t had a speedy trial,” they said. “This is an injustice to the citizens of Carbon County. I feel bad for these public defenders, because I know it’s hard for them, too. It just hurts our community.”
Ellen Fike is a freelance writer living in Cheyenne. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter at @EllenLFike.