Overburdened Sedgwick County public defenders not taking new cases

WICHITA | The Sedgwick County public defenders office has stopped taking new clients, saying its existing caseload is overwhelming at a time when the office is underfunded and understaffed.

The public defenders office has 22 attorneys, with each attorney handling an average of nearly 200 cases each year.

“We have an obligation to offer ethical representation and we just can't keep going on like we have been,” said Steve Osburn, the office's chief public defender. “We just had to stop the bleeding.”

Osburn said his office needs from two weeks to a month to catch up on its workload. Until the decision was made Friday, the Sedgwick County public defender's office had not refused cases since it opened more than a decade ago, he said.

Sedgwick County District Judge Eric Yost, who presides over the criminal courts division, said he will use private attorneys for court-appointed defense cases and bill the state.

“Their volume is about to increase,” Yost said.

Yost said he is confident the private attorneys will get paid for their services since they have the courts behind them.

“We have an obligation under the law to make sure everyone has legal representation, and we need to do everything we can to provide that,” Yost said.

Osburn said he learned last week that there was not enough money to replace two defense attorneys who went to work for the district attorney's office this week. Two other attorneys are on extended medical leave.

The attorneys' caseload has been increasing for the last three years. The office took 4,342 cases this past year, said Pat Scalia, director of the state's Board of Indigent Defense Services, which provides funding for the public defender's offices across the state.

“We are hoping for permission to fill the vacancies with the reduced budget,” Scalia said.

A month with new cases to handle should help public defenders catch up in time for the anticipated influx of cases next month, Osburn said.

“Unfortunately,” he said. “January is always a big month for us.”