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Public Defender caseloads remain high.

Byline: Bennett Loudon

Although the total number of new cases handled by the Monroe County Public Defender's Office in 2018 was lower than the previous year, attorney caseloads continue to stay well above experts' recommended levels.

The Office, led by Public Defender Tim Donaher, had 27,278 new clients last year, according to the 2018 annual report. In 2017, the number was 28,047.

The number reached a peak in 2010, with 30,382 new clients. Since 2009, when there were 27,870 new clients, last year's total was second only to 2016, when the Office had 26,968 new clients.

Still the number of cases handled by individual attorneys in the Office is well above the level suggested by the New York State Office of Indigent Legal Services (ILS).

In May 2017, ILS issued new caseload standards for indigent defense offices. The guideline calls for no more than 400 misdemeanors per attorney, or no more than 150 felonies.

The excessive caseloads are partly the result of new eligibility guidelines established by ILS in July 2017. Previously a client was eligible for services if their income was less than 125 percent of the federal poverty level. Under the new guidelines, clients qualify for service if their income is below 250 percent of the poverty guideline.

Donaher said the expanded eligibility criteria has added about 1,000 cases in both 2017 and 2018.

The state's Raise-the-Age initiative also is having an impact on the Public Defender's Office. On Oct. 1, 2018, the legislation took effect for 16-year-olds. On Oct. 1, 2019, the new law also will apply to 17-year-olds.

Under the Raise-the-Age legislation, most cases involving 16- and 17-year-old defendants are no longer handled in "adult" courts.

Because of the new law, the Public Defender's Office had to designate an experienced felony attorney to handle those cases. When 17-year-olds are also included, a second attorney will need to be assigned to those cases.

The Public Defender's staff includes 72 attorneys, one confidential assistant, six investigators, eight investigative assistants, nine full-time secretaries and one receptionist.

In Rochester City Court, 14 Assistant Public Defenders handled 7,500 cases, for an average of 535 cases each.

That number is actually lower than in past years, due to increased staffing, but it is still much higher than the level suggested by ILS.

Fourteen Assistant Public Defenders represented about 7,500 clients in town and village courts, plus 1,132 parolees, for an average of 616 clients each last year.

Those Assistant Public Defenders also were required to work one 12-hour on-call shift (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) each week to handle after-hour arraignments.

And they also represented clients whose cases were moved to other courts, such as Rochester Drug Treatment Court, Monroe County Mental Health Court, or Monroe County Veterans Court.

The 22 attorney's in the Public Defender's Superior Court Bureau handled 4,220 felonies in 2018. The felony caseload is about 185 new cases per attorney, which is above the ILS guideline.

Last year, the office conducted 143 trials for felonies or misdemeanors and violations. In 60 percent of those, public defenders won either a complete acquittal, an acquittal on the top charge against the defendant, or a trial order of dismissal, according to the report.

There are 10 attorneys assigned to Family Court where they represent about 2,142 clients in 3,000 cases about 300 per attorney.

The Appeals Bureau includes seven attorneys who handled 162 cases.

The Investigation Bureau is staffed by a chief investigator and six full-time investigators who handled 5,000 investigation requests last year.

"Despite the challenges we faced, due to the extraordinary dedication of the attorneys and support staff, we were able to continue to provide excellent representation for our clients," Donaher wrote in the 23-page report.

"The attorneys in the office continued to work significant unpaid overtime to ensure that we continue to provide excellent representation to our clients," he wrote. (585) 232-2035

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Publication:Daily Record (Rochester, NY)
Date:Mar 6, 2019
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