Newsletter: A Deep Dive Into the State of the U.S. Public Defense System

Kenneth Humphrey, with public defender Anita Nabha, is released from jail in San Francisco on May 9, 2018, almost a year to the day after his arrest and after a state appeals court found that his $350,000 bail was unconstitutionally excessive because he couldn’t come close to affording it. (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)

Hi NPPJ members,

Here’s a look back at the stories we brought you in September.

In America’s Courtrooms, the Need for High-Quality Public Defense is Vital

When a person is charged with a crime in the United States, the Sixth Amendment guarantees them a right to counsel. But not all counsel is equal. Across the nation, public defenders carry enormous caseloads beyond recommended standards, and many work for offices that don’t have adequate resources to properly muster a high-quality defense, such as hiring investigators.

The results can be tragic. People’s cases don’t get the attention they deserve, in turn leading to fewer trials and greater reliance on plea deals to keep the criminal legal system moving.

That’s why to fight for a more equitable public defense system, Arnold Ventures is funding research across the U.S. to address access to council, quality of counsel, and independence of counsel.

“I think it’s significant that the right to counsel is articulated in our Bill of Rights,” said Rebecca Silber, director of criminal justice for Arnold Ventures. “It is fundamental to a legitimate criminal justice system that people who are prosecuted by the state have a lawyer to represent them to fight off those charges. When we fail to do that, our system is not functional, and it’s fundamentally against our values of justice and due process and fairness.”

Fighting for the Underdogs: The Role of Public Defense Attorneys in America

In 2017, Kenneth Humphrey was charged with breaking into his elderly neighbor’s home and stealing a $5 bottle of cologne. He languished in jail for nearly a year, unable to pay his $350,000 bond. With the help of his attorney—a public defender named Anita Nabha with the San Francisco Public Defender’s Office—Humphrey fought back and became the face of California’s bail reform. His case is a prime example of the power of a public defense attorney who has the time and resources to put forth a high-quality defense.

“What ultimately drew me to public defense … I think it is the people who become outsiders and the underdogs and people who have been forgotten, the people who no one wants to stand next to,” Nabha told us.

One Man’s Fight for Reshaping the Nation’s Public Defense System

Stephen Hanlon has made fighting for public defenders his life’s work. In the past decade, he’s conducted state-by-state studies analyzing their public defense systems, all with the intent to create a more equitable and fair system.

“If an obstetrician had five times as much work as they could handle competently, terrible things would happen,” Hanlon said. “If a public defender has five times as much work as they could handle competently, terrible things would happen.”

Harris County’s ‘Holistic’ Approach to Public Defense Provides Support In and Out of the Courtroom

Though many public defense offices nationwide are burdened with too many caseloads, the Harris County Public Defender’s Office isn’t one of them. The office has established rules that limit caseloads attorneys can take, and with the backing of the Democratic-majority commissioners court, also has the necessary funding to provide support—both legally and in defendants’ everyday lives.

Across the U.S., Public Defender Offices Focusing on Data, Analytics to Drive Change

Data can provide more transparency and accountability to a system that is struggling to keep up with growing cases and overworked attorneys.

As Calls for Bail Reform Ring Nationwide, Could the Answer Lie With Public Defenders?

Officials in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania, found that having public defenders at bail hearings led to a decrease in the use of cash bail and pretrial detention.

As always, you can read the full archive of NPPJ stories here.


The National Partnership for Pretrial Justice, an Arnold Ventures community.