Cuts to Indigent Defense System have left our justice system deeply unbalanced

InjusticeAdd this to the list of potential fallout from the state’s unprecedented budget disaster: Oklahoma may soon be forced to release people accused of violent crimes because the state can’t afford to pay for their legal representation.

This nearly came to pass in 2002 when a District Court judge ordered that the director of the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System (OIDS) be held in contempt of court because the agency had not provided a lawyer for several defendants charged with serious crimes. The Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals ruled that the defendants had to be released if they were held any longer without counsel; this was only avoided when funds from the court were shifted to provide the attorneys required by the Constitution. Fourteen years later, as caseloads assigned to the OIDS grow and funding remains inadequate, the state may soon face another crisis as it is unable to fulfill its duty to ensure the right to an attorney.

A neglected constitutional right 

Every person accused of a crime in the United States is constitutionally guaranteed the right to be represented by an attorney. The duty of protecting this right falls squarely on the states (though many of them push it onto counties). It’s a significant task; over 80 percent of those charged with felonies are represented by a public defender because they cannot afford to hire a lawyer. Public defenders are a necessary counterbalance to district attorneys, who are charged with prosecuting them. Together, they ensure that both sides of a case are properly represented. In Oklahoma, the agency responsible for this is the Oklahoma Indigent Defense System.

In theory, America promotes a fair justice system by putting public defenders and district attorneys on equal footing to pursue the best defense and prosecution possible. In practice, indigent defense systems across the country are in full-fledged crisis, and their funding is “shamefully inadequate,” according to the American Bar Association. The result is a deeply imbalanced system that makes a mockery of justice for the poor. For example, some judicial districts in Louisiana have waiting lists of over 2,300 defendants, and attorney staffing has been cut in some districts by 90 percent. Poor defendants in South Carolina, meanwhile, are often not told of their right to an attorney and are sentenced without representation, in complete disregard for their Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial. 

The problem is getting worse in Oklahoma

[pullquote]“Each Oklahoma public defender did the work of 1.21 attorneys in 2007. By 2015, each was doing the work of 2.07 attorneys.”[/pullquote]

The same problems can be found in Oklahoma. The Oklahoma Indigent Defense System, like many other state agencies, has faced growing caseloads and flat budgets over the past 15 years. When adjusted for inflation, state appropriations have fallen over 30 percent since 2002, while the number of cases the agency handles has grown by over 27 percent.

The National Legal Aid and Defender Association has set a national standard of annual caseloads at 150 felony cases, 200 juvenile cases, or 400 misdemeanor and traffic cases for each public defender. By that standard, each OIDS staff attorney did the work of 1.21 attorneys in 2007; by 2015, each staff attorney was doing the work of 2.07 attorneys. Because attorneys based at satellite offices work in several district courts in regions that cover up to 7,544 square miles, they must travel extensively among courthouses, stretching their time even further.


In 2002, the OIDS was in such dire financial straits that Executive Director James Bednar argued that he simply couldn’t hire counsel for two criminal defendants and that he would be violating the law if he spent more than the agency had been allotted. The District Court of Kay County sued the OIDS for not fulfilling its responsibility to provide a lawyer for the two defendants. In its ruling, the Court of Criminal Appeals acknowledged that OIDS is “mandated to represent indigent defendants but constitutionally prohibited from entering contracts with counsel if it does not have unencumbered appropriated funds to pay such contracts.” It was a Catch-22 that was only temporarily resolved by shifting funds from the court to provide an outside lawyer.

The OIDS is almost certainly in an even worse financial position than it was in 2002. While another part of the justice system may step in to provide the funds needed to keep an alleged violent criminal in custody if a similar case arises, continuing on this path is unacceptable. When resources are tipped so heavily against public defenders, the whole system is off balance. Justice requires a prosecution and defense on equal footing, but public defenders have been steadily sliding backwards for far too long.

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Ryan Gentzler worked at OK Policy from January 2016 until November 2022. He last served as the organization's Reserach Director and oversaw Open Justice Oklahoma. He began at OK Policy as an analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

3 thoughts on “Cuts to Indigent Defense System have left our justice system deeply unbalanced

  1. Stop paying non-lawyers who work as a glorified secretary $90,000 per year and the OIDS might get back on track. They also have several “chiefs” of different divisions being paid $95,000 per year to do nothing more than push paper.

  2. An example of Angie Cole-Cockings method of dealing with this appear ongoing crisis.
    There is no longer a statutory authorization for this filing,which constitutes a childish urinating contest over basic rights and rapes indigent detainees of “fundamental fairness”

    When the guilty can not achieve the basic and fundamental,Constitutional guarantees, the innocent are actively being lied to.

    God, bless the thin blue line? I’m tired of begging,!

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