COVID-19 straining courts, public defenders

BOSTON — Court systems are in crisis mode with a backlog of cases due to COVID closures and a much smaller pool of defense attorneys to represent clients who can’t afford counsel.

USA Today compiled data from Vermont, Maine, western Massachusetts and New Hampshire and found 32 of New Hampshire’s public defenders have left in the last 15 months. That’s a quarter of its staff.

“I know they have lost, I believe the estimate I heard was one attorney every other week. They are down significantly,” said Robin Melone, the president of the New Hampshire Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers.

She called the situation a crisis on two levels.

“First and foremost, it’s a crisis for the clients.”

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Attorneys said current wait times on court dates are unprecedented in modern times.

“You have people actually sitting in jail waiting for their trials, and there’s nothing they can do about it,” said Boston 25 legal analyst and criminal defense attorney Peter Elikann.

He said some private defense attorneys are turning down cases and even retiring early. Others are making serious adjustments to the way they practice.

“A lot of the attorneys I know refuse to go into jails or prisons to visit their clients. Without enough attorneys, without enough people to represent these defendants, everybody is kind of on hold. And justice delayed is justice denied. People have a right to due process,” Elikann said.

Melone said public defenders are also experiencing more of what she calls “compassion fatigue,” with attorneys forced to take more work home and carry bigger emotional loads.

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