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Public Defender Caseloads and Ineffective Assistance Counsel Claims

WHEREAS, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People ("NAACP") seeks to protect the right of all individuals to receive effective assistance of counsel when accused of a crime; and

WHEREAS, The Sixth and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution afford criminal defendants the right to the assistance of counsel. Accordingly, states must provide counsel to criminal defendants who cannot afford to pay private attorneys. Moreover, the holding in Argersinger v Hamlin expanded the right to assistance of counsel to include cases where lesser offenses are charged and the defendant may be sentenced to imprisonment; and

WHEREAS, The Supreme Court of the United States has qualified the right to the assistance of counsel as the right to effective assistance of counsel. Thus, representation that falls below an objective standard of reasonableness under prevailing professional norms and is prejudicial to a defendant constitutes a violation of the Sixth Amendment; and

WHEREAS, Public defense systems across the United States suffer from underfunding and excessive caseloads. As of 2012, almost every state had persistently underfunded public defenders who represented indigent defendants. Inadequate funding: (1) deprives public defenders of access to resources like expert witnesses and investigative and litigation support services; and (2) limits the number of public defenders who can be hired and maintained; and

WHEREAS, The COVID-19 pandemic further limited the number of public defenders who could be hired and maintained. For example, post-pandemic studies indicate that Oregon has roughly 31% of the public defenders it needs to adequately meet the demand for legal aid and that New Mexico needs 67% more public defenders to represent defendants effectively. Similar findings were made in Colorado, Indiana, Louisiana, Missouri, and Rhode Island; and

WHEREAS, Public defenders nationwide cite low pay and severe workload — exacerbated by the COVID-19 court backlog — as their top reasons for resigning. For example, by June 2022, New York City experienced a mass departure of public defenders from five leading agencies that serve the city's indigent population, claiming that low pay and severe workload put them on an uneven footing with the prosecutors they faced. The post-COVID-19 scarcity of public defenders undermines the practical guarantees of the Sixth Amendment, puts additional strain on the remaining lawyers, and further contributes to excessive caseloads; and

WHEREAS, Excessive caseloads constitute a constructive denial of the right to counsel. National studies indicate that lawyers who defend the indigent encounter conflicts of interest because they must "limit their efforts on behalf of one or more clients in order to devote themselves to the most urgent needs of other clients"; and

WHEREAS, Although some court rules may provide standards for governing caseloads, these standards are often disregarded with no real consequences resulting from a violation. Furthermore, an indigent defendant's claim of ineffective assistance of counsel based solely on systemic weaknesses would not warrant relief under the "professional norms standard"; and

WHEREAS, Racial and ethnic minorities suffer disproportionately because they are accused of crimes at an excessive rate due to the language barriers and are among those who rely heavily on public defenders. In fact, at last count, of African Americans and Latinos in state prisons relied on public defenders or assigned counsel compared to White American inmates. Similarly, in the federal system, African Americans were more likely to have public defenders than White Americans.

THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED, that the NAACP reaffirms its 2016 resolution to support the right to effective assistance of counsel.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP will support and encourage vetted and conflict- free private attorneys to represent indigent defendants in jurisdictions where public defenders carry excessive caseloads.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP will encourage its units to support policy changes that implement specific caseload standards.

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED, that the NAACP will advocate for salary increases to be in pay parity and pay equity with that of the prosecuting attorney and regardless of whether that advocacy is required at the state and local level, and improved public service loan forgiveness programs to decrease the turnover rates of public defenders, and core staff.

BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED, that the NAACP will advocate for greater funding at the federal and state levels to support the public defender system and conflict counsel to eliminate untenable caseloads and alleviate other systemic issues resulting in ineffective assistance of counsel.

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