Public Defender Reforms
The indigent defense system in Arkansas is underfunded and stretched to the breaking point. According to a recent Arkansas Democrat Gazette article, each public defender in the state handles, on average, over 300 felony cases a year. The Arkansas Public Defenders Commission estimates that each attorney is taking on 200%-400% of the caseload recommended by the American Bar Association.
A public defense system that is stretched so thin means that often, public defenders are unable to provide individual counsel to those they represent. Public defenders are often not present at pretrial proceedings at which judges decide whether a defendant should be detained until trial. This places poor defendants at a greater risk of incarceration, conviction and long sentences. In addition, many counties charge a public defender fee of $100-$250 to defendants who use a court-appointed defender. This is essentially a tax on the poor for a service that states are constitutionally obligated to provide.
The Arkansas General Assembly must properly fund the Public Defense Commission to ensure that poor defendants have access to their constitutionally mandated legal counsel at all stages of trial. Public defenders should receive training on their constitutionally mandated obligations, and should have greater access to resources to investigate their client's cases. The public defender fee should be abolished to ensure that simply using a public defender does not place them at risk of greater financial obligation to the state.