Indiana public defenders say they’re nearing a breaking point as caseloads grow

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.  - The Chief Counsel for the Marion County Public Defender Agency describes the current state for Hoosier public defenders as “crisis.”

Ann Sutton says public defenders are now being severely overworked to do a massive increase in caseloads involving Child in Need of Services cases, or CHINS.

“They’re exhausted, mentally, physically exhausted. It’s too much. We’re really asking a lot of them,” Sutton said.

Sutton says since 2013, the number of child in need of CHINS cases have doubled.  Fueled by state dollars, she says the Department of Child Services have been filing cases at record levels. And public defenders, who represent the parents in those cases, can’t keep up.

“The bottom line is when you have more people doing the work they’re probably going to be filing more cases and we just can’t keep up,” she said.

Sutton says attorneys assigned to CHINS cases could have as many as 80 active cases at a time.

Larry Landis, the executive director of the Indiana Public Defender Council says this also creates another problem. Landis says individual counties pay for CHINS defenses but rely on a 40% reimbursement rate from the state for funding.

However, the state has placed regulations on the number of cases public defenders can carry (100) in order to receive the funding. Because of the influx of cases, Landis says many counties are at risk for falling out of compliance and losing the reimbursement funding.

“Let’s say of the 59 counties that are in the reimbursement system there could be 40 that are out of compliance with caseloads,” he said.

He also raised the question of overworked lawyers being able to provide adequate defenses.

“It doesn’t matter how good of a lawyer you are. You could be the best lawyer in the world but if you’ve got too many cases you’re not going to be able to represent them all well,” he said.

As for Ann Sutton, she says there are pieces of legislation currently circulating that would help public defenders get them more funding and address case load issues.

However, Landis says that a silver bullet for the problem would be the state taking over and funding parent defense for CHINS cases. The essential equivalent of  what they`re doing for DCS.

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