South Carolina's system of public defenders has attorneys saddled with caseloads that eclipse recommended levels, increasingly relies on students instead of paid workers and owes money to private lawyers whose bills can't be paid.
The crunch stems from a recession that has made more and more people eligible for free legal help while at the same time sapping state budget money that helps ensure poor defendants get lawyers. Some advocates say the growing crisis could prevent some people from getting the proper aid they need in court.
"It's going to all implode," said Sue Berkowitz, executive director of the South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center, an advocacy group for the poor. "Our system of government is not just executive and legislative, it's also judicial. And public defenders serve such an important part of all of that."
South Carolina's legal aid jurisdictions are carved up to match its 16 judicial circuits. To supplement funding from the counties they represent, public defenders rely on the South Carolina Commission on Indigent Defense to provide the majority of their budgets, with the cash doled out based on population levels. County-level funding has stayed fairly constant, but circuits have seen state funding slashed by at least half over two fiscal years.
"My guys can only do so much at one time," said Gene Hood, chief public defender in Allendale and Beaufort counties. "We are so outnumbered, and they keep giving law enforcement everything under the sun and giving the defense side of it a meager nothing."