FF12: Sedgwick Co. public defender’s office closed due to short staffing

Are your 6th Amendment rights being violated?
It’s a problem affecting communities across the nation. In some states, people are waiting in jail for months without an attorney.
Published: Jun. 1, 2023 at 6:21 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - FactFinder 12 was first alerted by a viewer, asking if the county’s public defender’s office is shut down, is it a possible Sixth Amendment violation?

It’s a problem affecting communities across the nation. In some states, people are waiting in jail for months without an attorney.

If you’re arrested and charged with a crime, the Sixth Amendment guarantees you the right to an attorney, even if you can’t afford one. But, over the last couple of years, the number of public defenders continues to decrease.

Nationally, almost every state reported a lack of public defenders. Our 12 News National Investigative team found some states are at crisis levels, meaning some are waiting in jail for months without representation. Here locally, FactFinder 12 discovered the Sedgwick County public defender’s office recently shut down temporarily due to short staffing.

“When you called, just so happens that both of the offices are shut down at the moment. When I say shut down, it doesn’t mean their lawyers aren’t going to court. They’re working down their caseload and not accepting new clients for a period of time,” said Sedgwick County District Attorney, Marc Bennett.

Bennett said the offices have shut down in the past to allow the attorneys to catch up on their caseloads. This time, the attorneys won’t take on new cases for at least a month.

Sedgwick County Chief Public Defender Sonya Strickland said she does not allow her attorneys to take on more than 70 cases at a time. Currently, there are 14 public defender’s and more than 700 open cases.

“I’m seven attorney’s short. And I have nowhere to send cases. I have no attorneys to give them to,” said Strickland.

That’s why the office remains closed to new clients.

Bennett said they put a structure in place when the shortages became an issue at least three years ago. Sedgwick County now has a system to quickly resolve lower-level property and drug possession cases. It also is working with local, private attorneys to take some cases if the load becomes too much.

“The public defenders and the conflicts office, taking a month reprieve for them doesn’t derail the entire system because we’re still moving forward,” said Bennett. “It’s certainly not a good thing but, at the same time, it’s not mission critical that they are not open for business on a day-to-day basis. Could we sustain this for six months? No.”

FactFinder 12 asked Bennett if that system would not have been set up, would Sedgwick County be at a crisis level with people waiting in jail without representation?

“Let’s put it this way, we got through it the last time. The system we have now, a lot of thought went into this and it’s allowed us to keep things moving in an expedited manner,” said Bennett.

The system in place helps prevent people’s sixth amendment rights from being violated.

Across the state of Kansas, the public defender’s office says 85% of people charged with felony crimes need to be represented by a public defender. The office said it’s gone to state lawmakers to get pay increases to fill those positions but, it needs more help.