Shortage of public defenders is eroding the nation’s judicial system

The Sixth is an ongoing investigative series exposing the shortage of public defenders in the nation’s judicial system
Published: Dec. 30, 2022 at 9:10 AM EST|Updated: Jan. 3, 2023 at 10:34 AM EST
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ATLANTA, Ga. (Atlanta News First) - This is an ongoing series about the constitutionally guaranteed access to legal representation in court, and the consequences that arise when there are not enough public defenders. Advocates say lack of access to representation in court is a constitutional crisis that erodes public trust and violates the rights of the accused.

Part one - Desperate for Representation

The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens the right to an attorney to people who cannot afford one. But Atlanta News First uncovered public defender offices across the country, including in Georgia, are chronically understaffed, leaving defendants waiting months without legal representation, some languishing behind bars waiting for their day in court.

Public defender advocates say the Covid-19 pandemic didn’t cause the problem, but rather exposed decades of underfunding a vital part of the criminal justice system, impacting poor and Black communities the most.

Trequelle Vann-Marcouex was arrested for armed robbery. During an interrogation, a detective...
Trequelle Vann-Marcouex was arrested for armed robbery. During an interrogation, a detective scolded him for not cooperating. He couldn’t afford an attorney or the $25,000 bail. His family believes that's why he took his own life while in custody.(WANF)

In part one of our investigative series, learn more about the impact to people accused of crimes, their families and frustration from judges concerned with the problem.

Part two: Released From Jail

In this story, Atlanta News First traveled to Portland, Oregon, where judges have dismissed hundreds of felony criminal cases because there are not enough attorneys for defendants. Some of the dismissed cases involve property crimes, stolen vehicles, and domestic violence.

Multnomah County, Oregon, DA Mike Schmidt is as frustrated as anyone with the nation's lack of...
Multnomah County, Oregon, DA Mike Schmidt is as frustrated as anyone with the nation's lack of public defenders.(WANF)

This story shares the impact to crime victims and how the problem can erode the public’s trust in the criminal justice system. Hear from a district attorney upset with the shortage and why Oregon’s former head of the state’s public defender office thinks more judges across the county should be dismissing case.

Part three: Why They’re Leaving

Learn why six Georgia state and county public defenders blame the same agency head for leaving their jobs over the past two years. That state director sits down with Atlanta News First to defend her actions.

Janie Weaver isn't an attorney, but she's been arguing her fiancé's case for months in the...
Janie Weaver isn't an attorney, but she's been arguing her fiancé's case for months in the courts because of a chronic shortage of public defenders.(WANF)

This story also highlights one of the 620 people in Georgia this past summer that did not have a public defender. Hear from a woman, who has no legal training, forced to represent her fiancé in court.

Part four: Search For Solutions

Two Georgia lawmakers react to our investigation and the crisis involving the state’s public defender office. One incoming state senator pledges to compel the legislature to find solutions to the problem this coming session.

The story also highlights proposed federal legislation could address attorney staffing shortages, state funding gaps and excessive caseloads. Hear from the author of the bill, a congresswoman from Oregon, whose district is experiencing chronic public defender shortages.

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici wants $250 million in grants to go toward public defender offices...
U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici wants $250 million in grants to go toward public defender offices across the U.S.(WANF)