LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – A months-long analysis of data has revealed some Arkansas district court judges may not even be appointing a public defender in their courtrooms.
Since October, Working 4 You has been exposing issues with the Arkansas judicial system, particularly the appointment of public defenders. Using the state’s Freedom of Information Act, KARK 4 News requested data from the Arkansas Public Defenders Commission and the Arkansas Administrative Offices of the Court.
For months, Working 4 You has been merging the data to compare the number of district court cases with the number of people being appointed a public defender.
Between 2017 and 2019, there are six Arkansas counties where a district court went an entire year with zero public defenders appointed. In other counties, like Pulaski, public defenders were given 56,370 cases in a three-year span.
Working 4 You took the merged data to Arkansas Public Defenders Commission Executive Director Gregg Parrish, who said he thinks the system is working with ‘some exceptions.’
“There are pockets in the state that lead me to have some concern,” Parrish said.
The numbers suggest sharp differences between cases versus appointments. Parrish said the commission’s report on the number of cases handled is based on what his local offices across the state share with him.
There are 245 district courtrooms in Arkansas, handling mostly misdemeanor criminal and traffic cases. The number of district court cases each county handled was provided by the Arkansas Administrative Offices of the Court. The case count only includes misdemeanor and traffic cases.
Judges do not have to appoint an attorney if the defendant is not facing jail time.
“Where a judge says, “You’re not going to jail for any reason, so I’m not giving you a lawyer.’ That’s rare,” Parrish said.
State law defines a person who may need a public defender as someone in substantial financial hardship. So, how can the state make sure judges appoint an attorney when it’s needed?
Parrish said his office is not told when someone asks for a public defender, so they would never know when they’re denied.
“I cannot tell a judge what to do. I can’t,” he said. “I like to say, the judges read the same books that I read.”
Working 4 You has learned there are no real checks and balances in some courtrooms when it comes to a judge’s decision on appointing the public defender. Some district courts are not transcribing what is said because they’re not required to keep the same records as circuit courts.