Discourse / Editorials / February 13, 2013

Thoughts from the Embers: Relieve public defenders

EmbersThe criminal justice system in Knox County is bending under the weight of overwhelming caseloads for public defenders, and it is time for the county to reexamine its priorities.

A piece in Sunday’s Register-Mail detailed the extent of the problem, with two felony public defenders handling more than double the cases recommended for a given year, and this affects the Knox community as much as the Galesburg community.

Knox County public defender Jim Harrell has been juggling three homicide cases, including that of Lakeesha Smith, who has been charged with and is awaiting trial for reckless homicide in the death of Tundun Lawani.

And according to the Register-Mail report, just after Harrell was approved for additional counsel in one of those three cases, a stabbing death earlier this year landed him a fourth.

Smith and others awaiting trial deserve the right to legal counsel that matches the quality they would get from any private attorney. This is a legal right provided to those who may not be able to afford it, a service that should not be subject to the whims of unstable municipal budgets.

At the same time, a campus of Tundun’s friends, sisters and classmates, not to mention her family, await some kind of legal resolution.

Indeed, oversized caseloads are not unique to Knox County, as the article notes that three-fourths of similar systems nationwide face the same problems. But this should not be an excuse for the county government to uphold the status quo and pile more work onto its public defenders.

In the article, Knox County State’s Attorney John Pepmeyer notes that his office makes “liberal” use of interns, and this may serve as a solution for the public defender’s office. And while this may help to ease the workload, it is no more than a quick fix.

In the system we have today, or with some nominal help from interns, we run the risk of devolving from overloaded to backlogged, to a system that withholds justice. We could end up having only high-profile cases that elicit public outcry are expedited through the system, leaving the rest to simply hope that they may one day get a proper chance at justice.

We understand that more money to hire public defenders will not simply materialize and present itself for public use. One would be hard-pressed to find a municipal budget that hasn’t been impacted in some way by economic hardship in recent years. But that hardship should prompt local government to reconsider its priorities based on essential public services.

We urge Knox County government to realize the importance of having adequate counsel available for defendants and to prioritize hiring more public defenders. Even one new full-time public defender would ease the burden on the others substantially.

But more importantly, it would ease the burden of those involved in these cases, of defendants waiting to hear a verdict and move on with their lives, of victims’ families seeking closure. After all, the public defenders will get to work in the morning, do the best they can with the resources they have and go home when the courthouse closes for the day. Meanwhile, a prolonged process will weigh upon the rest.

TKS Editorial Board

Tags:  caseload Galesburg Register-Mail Jim Harrell Knox County Knox County Courthouse Lakeesha Smith public defender Tundun Lawani

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