Public Defenders Office Deals With Backlog

Dan Fessler runs the Yakima County Department of Assigned Counsel. They're better known as the Public Defenders. Attorneys there handle all defendants who can't afford a lawyer; both adults and juveniles. That's a huge load.

Fessler says it reminds him of an old TV show.
"I like to think of it as the old "I Love Lucy" skit where they're working in a bakery and at first she's going along doing fine," Fessler chuckles, "Then the cakes start coming out faster and pretty soon she's dropping cakes."

Of course it's quite serious in the real world. Look at the case load chart over the last ten years. It peaked at around three thousand two hundred cases. That's over 180 cases per lawyer per year...making for a real backlog. "The real thing that's happened is that we've outgrown our criminal docket system," Fessler explains.
And Fessler points out that there are little bottlenecks, and bigger ones. One of the worst is the omnibus hearings on Thursdays.
Fessler says, "So we have this one hearing in the middle of the week where all the cases in process are heard."
Sometimes there are 130 to 240 cases in a two hour period. That means few clients will even get to appear in court at their own hearings. There's just not time.

But Fessler believes it could be worse. "I think the Yakima County Criminal Justice System has done the best it can with limited resources."

Public Defenders say they have a solution: Two criminal dockets instead of one. That system might be in place by the end of the year.