Law Giving More Defendants Lawyers Has Downside

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Whitney Bryen / Oklahoma Watch

A new law intended to give defendants a fairer chance in the justice system is proving a double-edged sword.

Lawmakers passed a bill last year that blocked judges from denying someone a public defender just because they posted bail.

Under the previous law, people who posted bail were assumed to have enough money to hire their own lawyer and were ineligible for a state-provided defender. But the legislation removed that language and instructed judges to consider the posting of bail as one, but not the sole, factor in deciding whether to appoint a public defender.

Craig Sutter, executive director of Oklahoma’s Indigent Defense System, said the law creates a Catch-22.

Sutter said the agency supported the change, but it also likely means more cases are being assigned to the system.

It creates another obstacle in the system’s adhering to guidelines of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association, which recommends that no one attorney handle more than 150 felony cases or more than 400 misdemeanor and traffic cases in any given year.

As it now stands, the workload for each attorney in the Oklahoma agency’s non-capital trial division is 2.61 times the guidelines.

“We are trying to get that number down,” Sutter said. “But it is going to be a long process.”