Broken public defense system hurts both victims and those accused of crimes

Improving the public defense system will require better pay, investments in new technology and ensuring that the assistant public defenders have realistic and manageable workloads.

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Thomas Wortham III, father of Thomas Wortham IV, can’t hold back his tears as he speaks about his son who was murdered with a trafficked gun in Chicago. His Chicago Police Officer son served two terms in Iraq, but died in gun violence in Chicago. The Brady Center to prevent gun violence has filed a suit against the Mississippi gun dealer who sold the straw purchased gun. On the right is Carolyn Wortham, mother of Thomas Wortham IV and wife of Thomas Wortham III. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

Thomas Wortham III, father of slain Chicago Police Officer Thomas Wortham IV, holds back tears while speaking about his son who was murdered during a failed armed robbery in 2010. The family is still awaiting closure in the case as the conviction of on of his killers was overturned by a state appellate court.

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I spent 37 years as a cop and I’ve arrested men and women responsible for all sorts of crimes, from theft to assault, rape and murder. I believe that good policing is essential to keeping our communities safe. And that’s why I don’t say this lightly: Our public defense system is broken, and the damage is harming both those who are accused of crimes and those victimized by them.

It’s time to fix it.

My career started with a bang — literally. It was 1987, and I was barely four years into my job when a masked man shot me in the chest with a shotgun. My bulletproof vest saved my life, and I spent the next 34 years as a cop in Riverside, eventually becoming the department’s chief. My three sons are officers, and I’ve spent countless amounts of time inside courthouses observing which elements of the criminal justice system work and which don’t.

The vast majority of assistant public defenders are hard-working professionals genuinely committed to the welfare and well-being of their clients. They are a vital and under-appreciated part of our criminal justice system.

But here’s the problem: They’re underpaid, overworked and saddled with such heavy case loads, they can barely spend time with their clients. I’ve seen public defenders sprinting from courtroom to courtroom to hand-deliver legal filings. With such exhausting work, many public defenders burn out quickly and leave the profession.

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Those breakdowns take a toll on public safety, prolonging the agony of many victims and leading many in the public to lose faith in our entire criminal justice system.

They also end up failing to protect the rights of the accused. Public defenders are so overworked that their first inclination is to accept a plea bargain rather than go to trial, especially if the agreements will result in their clients spending little to no time behind bars. Depending on the case, prosecutors can sweeten the pot by agreeing to throw out the most serious charges and only keep lower-level charges that judges could theoretically expunge in the future. But here’s a dirty little secret: That rarely happens.

Second, there are few if any limits on the number of motions that lawyers can submit to judges, which means it can take weeks, months, or years before most trials start.

Those delays needlessly prolong the suffering of victims and their loved ones, who are forced to wait for justice. Victims and their relatives often take time off from work, arrange child care, make the long trip to the courthouse — only find out the case was pushed back yet again.

I’ve seen the emotional toll of such delays. In one particularly glaring example, the family of Thomas Wortham IV, an off-duty Chicago police officer killed during an attempted robbery in 2010, is still waiting for a conclusive end to the years of legal wrangling that began after the 2015 conviction of one of his murderers was overturned by a state appellate court.

Wortham’s father, a retired police officer, said that the long delays are agonizing. “They need to think more about the victims,” he said.

The delays also impact public safety. Many cops take time off from their normal duties to testify in court. Each last-minute delay means that those police officers weren’t out on the street or available to respond to 911 calls because they were waiting for a court hearing that never took place.

I don’t blame the public defenders, who are operating within the confines of a profoundly flawed system. Prosecutors also file enormous numbers of motions, which contributes to victims and their loved ones understandably losing faith in our entire criminal justice system.

These problems extend well beyond our state. Studies have found that public defenders in Colorado and Rhode Island had workloads that were two or three times higher than they should be. In Louisiana, the rates are even higher — almost five times the normal workload. Heavy caseloads lead public defenders to leave their jobs; turnover rates in some states are higher than 25%. That, in turn, makes delays worse, since new attorneys need time to get up to speed.

Improving the public defense system will require better pay, investment in new technology and ensuring that caseloads are realistic and manageable.

The flaws in this system hurt victims and their loved ones as much as those accused of crimes. They all deserve better.

Tom Weitzel retired from the Riverside Police Department in May 2021 after 37 years in law enforcement, including 13 years as Riverside Chief of Police. Follow him on Twitter @chiefweitzel.

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