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Report: Public defenders in Oklahoma work nearly 4 times too many cases

The Supreme Court of Oklahoma
File photo
The Supreme Court of Oklahoma

Public defenders in Oklahoma are overworked and not by a little.

Emily Hamer, a reporter for Lee Enterprises, recently studied data related to public defender caseloads from all 50 states.She found Oklahoma public defenders to be some of the more overworked attorneys in the country.

“In Oklahoma, there are full-time public defenders working for the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System with nearly four times more cases than they should have,” said Hamer.

Hamer says because of the public defender shortage, there’s also likely a problem in Oklahoma with people who haven’t consulted an attorney making quick decisions.

“There are a lot of people who show up on their first day of court and they’ll talk to the prosecutor and plead guilty without ever talking to a public defender or a lawyer,” said Hamer.

The data shows that private attorneys contracted to fill in the gaps of the public defense system handle five times more cases than is reasonable. This is especially a problem in rural Oklahoma, Hamer says, where people don’t have access to a public defender’s office and must use a contracted private attorney.

The guidelines about what constitutes overwork were taken from a recent report published by the American Bar Association and other organizations.

Before joining Public Radio Tulsa, Elizabeth Caldwell was a freelance reporter and a teacher. She holds a master's from Hollins University. Her audio work has appeared at KCRW, CBC's The World This Weekend, and The Missouri Review. She is a south Florida native.