On April 27, 2017, Jack Talaska, a Lafayette lawyer for the poor, was handling 194 felony cases. Of those clients, 113 had been formally charged.
High-level felonies, according to a workload study, that carry sentences of 10 years or more should each get 70 hours of legal attention. As The New York Times details in a new feature on public defenders with unrealistic caseloads, that works out to more than two years of full-time work alone for Talaska.
Then consider that mid-level felonies require 41 hours each. And then factor in that a few of Talaska’s clients faced life without parole. Such cases, on average, require 201 hours apiece.
Add it all up and Talaska needed to do the work of five full-time lawyers to serve all of his clients—and his situation was not outside the norm. Of the public defenders in Louisiana handling felony caseloads at that time, there were two dozen with even more clients. One had 413.
The numbers alone might seem to violate the Constitution. Poor defendants in the United States have the right to a competent lawyer, and hundreds of thousands of defendants rest their hopes on someone like Talaska.
But there has never been any guarantee that those lawyers would have enough time to handle their cases. That’s why the study that looked at the workloads of public defenders is significant.
Right now, courts allow an individual to claim, after they lose, that they received an ineffective defense. But the bar is high. Some judges have ruled that taking illegal drugs, driving to court drunk or briefly falling asleep at the defense table—even during critical testimony—did not make a lawyer inadequate.
So is it legal? Read the full story.