Office of the Municipal Public Defender Overburdened With Massive Caseloads

The Office of the Municipal Defender has provided free legal counsel to thousands of poor people in municipal court.
The Office of the Municipal Defender has provided free legal counsel to thousands of poor people in municipal court. boonchai wedmakawand
Denver’s chief public defender, Alice Norman, knows she didn't sign up for a cakewalk. She's dedicated much of her career to providing defense for the most vulnerable, and that comes with challenges far beyond understanding the law. But as Norman told a Denver City Council committee in a briefing on December 11, her office faces a massive caseload that is overwhelming its small staff and may leave them with no choice but to stop accepting cases if it gets worse.

The Office of the Municipal Defender has provided free legal counsel to thousands of poor people in municipal court. City council approved its creation in 2014, joining Aurora and Lakewood as cities that provide in-house defense counsel for municipal court. Before that, Denver had contracted with private law firms to provide defense for indigent clients charged with violating municipal ordinances, such as trespassing, park curfews, traffic offenses, shoplifting, dog-related cases and other such offenses.

The office now has one part-time and ten full-time attorneys. According to Norman, the office sees over 10,000 cases per year, preparing for trial in about 7,500 of them. That means her attorneys typically prepare for over sixty jury trials per month — full cases with opening and closing statements, direct and cross examination, and investigations of witnesses and parties who can be difficult to track down. According to Norman, defenders are also routinely paid $10,000 to $20,000 less than equivalent positions for city prosecutors, leading to problems with retention.

Several state and city law changes in the past year have made municipal cases more complex and labor-intensive. A state law that passed in 2016 clarified that cities must provide representation to clients held in custody on municipal charges starting from their initial arraignment. That means the Office of the Municipal Public Defender is required to represent clients in seven-day-per-week arraignment court at the Denver County Jail. In 2015, Denver began requiring body cameras for police officers, and to prepare for a case, public defenders must review all footage from the officers involved in an incident, even for a minor park curfew or trespassing charge.

"What was once a paragraph description of events is now likely to add up to hours of some form of digital recording that must be analyzed, viewed and transcribed," Norman wrote in an email to Westword. These changes increase accountability, but the burden for upholding them often falls on the defense.

Though the office has been growing steadily from its original size (only five full-time attorneys and a $768,000 annual budget), Denver is far out of compliance with the American Bar Association's standards for caseloads for indigent defense, Norman says. Next year's budget, about $2.3 million, comes primarily from the City of Denver's general fund and will be supplemented by a state grant that helps fund representation at initial appearances. That amount just covers the work the office needs to do, Norman says. Some of the budget goes toward contracts with private attorneys. Norman estimates she would need to hire at least ten more attorneys to reduce the office's dependence on contractors and reduce its own attorneys' workload enough to comply with the standards.

The Office of the Municipal Public Defender is still located in a 3,500-square-foot space on the fifth floor of the City and County Building. Councilman Paul Kashmann, the chair of the city council committee that heard Norman’s presentation, told the rest of his colleagues (many of whom hadn’t been to the fifth floor themselves) that it reminded him of “a little hobbit world." According to Norman, the space is so tiny, no more than six people can meet in one room. She's been denied additional funds to hire more personnel because she was told her office space wasn't big enough.

Norman has requested new office space in one of the buildings that the city has recently purchased, but the Office of Real Estate has not informed Norman of "definite plans" to convert one into a space for her office, she says.

Norman's office estimates that 60 percent of its clients are unsheltered and 75 percent have mental health issues, meaning that their true long-term needs amount to much more than just legal representation. "I have spent much of my career thinking I should have gotten a degree in a different area," Norman told the city council committee. Many clients do not have a connection with human services. "That's a scary place to go in their mind," she says.

Norman is holding out hope that the office will be able to hire a social worker and two peer navigators in the next year, thanks to a federal grant awarded to the Department of Human Services. "If [a client] was shoplifting because they did not have benefits, what a plus to say after you meet with me, let's go next door and set you up with a social worker who can hook you up with food stamps," Norman explained to the city council committee. "They're in our office, they're already there, so why not offer the services there?"  
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Sara Fleming is a freelance writer and formal editorial fellow at Westword. She covers a wide variety of stories about local politics and communities. A born-and-raised Coloradan, when she's not exploring Denver, she's on a mission to visit every mountain town in the state.
Contact: Sara Fleming