Commonwealth Journal

Holiday

April 4, 2009

Kentucky public defenders running out of time, money

Somerset — Follow Teresa Whitaker into court and you’re likely to get there early and leave late. You’re also likely to watch her carry stacks of file folders, each representing a client, through which she thumbs looking for the appropriate file when a judge calls one of her many clients’ cases.

Often when she finds it, she looks at faces in the crowd, searching for the client, find the right face to go with the right folder, and then spend precious few minutes with him before the judge.

Whitaker is the Directing Attorney for the Somerset Field Office of the Department of Public Advocacy. She’s a 43-year-old mother of three who supervises five other attorneys who serve clients in Pulaski, McCreary, Russell and Wayne counties. She and each of the other attorneys have more than 550 cases to handle at any one time. In fact, they have so many cases, they practice “triage,” choosing which cases “are the most urgent, which come up for trial first.”

“I don’t believe clients can receive effective representation” in such an over loaded, over worked system, Whitaker said. Attorneys must prioritize their load, spending most of their time on felony cases, but “juveniles and misdemeanors are maybe not getting as much attention as their cases deserve.” But their situation may soon get a lot worse because the department will run out of money sometime in May..

The state’s Chief Public Advocate, Ed Monahan, says such a high case load – 10 of the state’s field offices average more than 550 cases per attorney – is well beyond “an ethical level.” But because of the state’s severe fiscal problems, Monahan has no prospect of filling anywhere close to the 55 attorney vacancies in the department.

Two of those are in Somerset. One position has been open for a year. Then in December, Whitaker’s predecessor, Jim Cox, retired and Whitaker was promoted to the position. But her former staff attorney’s position remains vacant – and she must now handle those cases as well as the role of administrator for the field office and supervisor of the other attorneys.

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