LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Public defenders in Pulaski and Perry Counties have been told to reduce their caseloads, which could signal the beginning of a crisis for the Arkansas justice system.

A letter penned by the chief public defender for Pulaski and Perry counties told the county court that public defenders will start objecting to new cases beginning March 1 in Pulaski and Perry counties. This move could affect hundreds —possibly thousands — of criminal cases.

We are told the decision comes after the Arkansas Supreme Court’s Office of Ethics Counsel hinted that public defenders who are unable to adequately handle their workload should not be appointed more cases or it could be unethical.

The Office of Ethics Counsel is not an official order or an opinion of the Arkansas Supreme Court. The office simply provides advice for attorneys.

Details can be found here:

“Among his conclusions is that “the trial attorney confronted with a caseload or workload producing or reasonably likely to produce ethical violations by the attorney should refuse or decline to accept additional court appointments or assigned clients from the public defender office until the trial attorney’s caseload or overall workload is reduced to the level the trial attorney can ethically and effectively handle,” the letter stated.

Public defenders in the counties were told to reduce their caseloads to “ethically appropriate levels.”

Attorneys say caseloads in Pulaski and Perry counties have tripled since the pandemic.

“We have concluded that our current caseload in the circuit courts of the Sixth Judicial District results in ethical violations. Specifically, we find that our office’s current caseload prevents competent, diligent, and prompt resolution of clients’ cases in compliance with the rules of professional conduct. Any further increase will only result in additional ethical violations,” according to the letter.

KARK obtained the letter shortly after the Arkansas House and Senate Judiciary Committee met jointly about access to the public defender.

The chairman of the committee says it’s the Working 4 You investigation that made him want to know more about access to public defenders in Arkansas.

He’s referring to an October story that uncovered state records that show Pope County District Court Judge Don Bourne appointed the public defender 48 times in nine years.

Records show that people who were unemployed, others making minimum wage and an incoming college student were all denied a public defender by Bourne.

Lawmakers discussed the access to public defenders, calling it a multi-level approach to increase the access. That could mean adding more attorneys or more specialty courts.

Arkansas Public Defender Commission Executive Director Gregg Parrish told the committee that the problem is quickly growing.

“I’ll expect in the coming days, public defenders in certain areas will say I’m not taking any more appointments because you’re making me violate my ethical oath,” said Parrish.

Lawmakers did not specifically discuss why people were denied a public defender by the Pope County district judge.

Lawmakers do not oversee or investigate judges. The Arkansas Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission (JDDC) is charged with that task. JDDC announced in November it had launched an investigation into Bourne.

Bourne, in a written statement said in October, roughly 95% of people in his court plead guilty because they want their case to be over with.

The judge noted if a person is employed, he typically does not appoint the public defender.