A state effort to bolster the ranks of public defenders and prosecutors has offered little relief to Pulaski County courts burdened by backlogs of felony cases, according to a circuit court judge.
Judge Cathleen Compton said Thursday that her court was still struggling to dispose of criminal cases that built up during the coronavirus pandemic. While state funds have allowed prosecutors and public defenders to hire additional part-time attorneys, Compton said the number of cases on her docket hasn’t changed significantly since officials approved the funding in March.
Three weeks earlier, shortly after state officials extended funding for the extra staff, Compton said her court was still swamped with cases.
“I just really hope that we get the extra help that we so desperately need,” she said during a Sept. 1 interview.
The extra funding was in response to the swelling of dockets in several Arkansas judicial districts during the pandemic, when judges were forced to put trials on hold. At the same time, as attorneys struggled to dispose of cases during the trial hiatus, new defendants continued to enter the system, adding to the backlog.
For prosecutors, the case backlog has meant potentially delaying justice for crime victims.
For some public defender offices, the stalled cases have pushed already high workloads far beyond the nationally recommended 150 felony cases per attorney per year. With caseloads reaching unprecedented levels during the pandemic, some public defenders worried they might not be able to effectively represent each of their clients.
Between March 1, 2020 and May 31, 2021, 58,840 felony criminal cases were filed statewide in Arkansas courts. As of mid-August, 15,471 of these cases had yet to be disposed of, according to data from the Administrative Office of the Courts contained in emails obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
In March of this year, to help deal with the backlog, the state granted the Arkansas Public Defender Commission and the state Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator $1 million apiece, allowing each to hire up to 45 part-time attorneys. Since the initial round of funding was only intended to last a few months, state officials in August approved an additional $4.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds to extend the positions by a year.
As of Wednesday, the Office of the Prosecutor Coordinator had $316,181.68 of its original $1 million in state funding. The Public Defender Commission had $335,737.99 left, according to Scott Hardin, spokesman for the Department of Finance and Administration.
In some judicial districts, the funds have had a noticeable impact, allowing offices to offload significant numbers of aging cases onto newly hired part-time attorneys. But in other districts, the limits on the funding, pre-pandemic backlogs and a scarcity of attorneys interested in the temporary positions have left courts managing high caseloads with limited relief.
Across Arkansas, the part-time positions have had mixed results in addressing the case backlog.
Since state officials approved the funding, prosecutors in 22 of the state’s 28 judicial districts have sent Mc-Mahan requests for part-time attorneys. After Pulaski and Perry counties, the Fourth Judicial District, which encompasses Washington and Madison counties, received the second-most part-time attorneys, with four approved positions. Two of these positions were filled as of late August.
The additional positions have made an appreciable difference in the caseloads of prosecutors in at least three districts, McMahan said in an interview late last month.
He pointed to the 13th Judicial District, which covers Union County, where two temporary attorneys were handling a total of around 150 cases that would have otherwise gone to staff attorneys. In Washington County, McMahan knew of one COVID-relief attorney who had disposed of roughly 250 cases.
“That’s quite a bit of progress,” he said.
McMahan noted that some candidates had reservations about accepting the part-time positions when the state only guaranteed funding for three months. Even now that the positions are guaranteed for an additional year, prospective hires may have concerns about accepting the job, he said.
To address the backlog, Prosecutor Nathan Smith hired two part-time attorneys thanks to the state funds. One of the attorneys has since left to work for Walmart — “the scourge of Benton County is that I train Walmart’s legal department,” said Smith — but the remaining attorney is managing 60 to 70 felony cases.
“That matters,” said Smith on Sept 13. “It puts us in the position of being able to handle the backlog and also deal with what’s coming in.” Prior to hiring the coronavirus-relief attorneys, Smith said, his attorneys would commonly handle 200 to 250 active felonies.
When Smith’s counterpart Jay Saxton, chief public defender, first heard of the plan to fund part-time attorney positions, he thought his office wouldn’t be able to find candidates given the state’s parameters.
But since then, he has managed to hire four part-time attorneys. One has left his office, but Saxton said the remaining attorneys “have been a dramatic help to us.” All four attorneys were highly experienced and capable of managing serious felony cases. Saxton estimated the part-time hires had disposed of at least 100 cases.
STRAIN ON PUBLIC DEFENDERS
Even with the part-time hires, however, Saxton said attorneys in his office were dealing with significantly more than the annual 150 felony cases per public defender recommended by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards.
Saxton said he wasn’t aware of any public defender office in the U.S. that is meeting the standard and said that his attorneys were capable of handling their caseloads.
But he noted that to maintain their workloads, he and his attorneys were having to visit clients in jail weekends and bring work home in the evenings.
“It’s just a normal habit for us,” said Saxton. “That’s not manageable over a long period of time. That’s why public defender offices lose their public defenders fairly quick, it’s because it’s a grueling job to have.”
In the Fourth Judicial District, which covers Washington and Madison counties, the public defenders office was allowed to hire four part-time attorneys.
Leana Houston, chief deputy public defender, said the caseloads had decreased since March but noted that attorneys were still struggling to manage serious felony cases such as murders. These cases, which can last months or years and require experienced attorneys, form the bulk of the case backlog in the Fourth Judicial District, according to Houston.
Earlier this year, Houston said, attorneys in her office were managing on average 300 felony cases. At one point, a public defender was handling 526 felonies, 30 of which could result in a defendant facing 10-40 years or life in prison.
During the past two years, Houston said, her office and the prosecuting attorney’s office in Washington County have seen turnover rates of more than 50%. With veteran attorneys leaving their posts, Houston said her remaining staff has had to manage the additional cases while training new hires.