Focus Policy Blog


Sixth Amendment Disparities in Delaware Criminal Courts, Part Two

Revisiting The Sixth Amendment Center’s recent report on the disparities in access to counsel in Delaware criminal courts, part two of the publication examines the issue further. This part examines the systemic problems that prevent those defendants who obtain public defenders from receiving satisfactory representation. The negative implications for communities of color are great because minorities are involved in the criminal justice system at a much higher rate than whites.

Delaware’s “horizontal” system of defendant representation violates Principle Seven of the American Bar Association’s (ABA) Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System. The ABA recommends “vertical” representation where a client is represented by the same attorney without interruption until the case is completed.  But in Delaware, one attorney handles one part of the defendant’s case who then passes it on to a different attorney to handle the next part of the case, and so on with multiple attorneys working on various parts of one defendant’s case.  In this system, the defendant does not have an attorney working on his behalf with in-depth knowledge of the defendant’s case.

The report explains that public defenders are overloaded with cases on which they have little time to properly work.  A public defender’s caseload exceeds national caseload standards.  In two Delaware counties, for example, a public defender in family court’s work can equal three full-time attorneys’ work.  Public Defenders in other Delaware courts are just as overwhelmed with cases. The report provides the following statistics for one public defender, whose situation is typical for public defenders:

  • 0% of his clients appear at his office before their trial date
  • 25% of his clients call his office before their trial dates
  • 75% of his clients will meet with him 5 minutes before their cases are heard in court
  • 60% of his clients’ cases are dismissed as a result of the victim’s failure to appear

Patrice Garnette, Joint Center Graduate Scholar, The George Washington University Law School