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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Public defenders are supposed to represent people who can't afford lawyers. Public defenders have been overworked and underpaid for decades. And in several states, the public defender system is in crisis, and the recession is making things even worse.

NPR's Ailsa Chang went to Michigan for this story.

AILSA CHANG: A lot of lawyers in Detroit say if you want to see what's wrong with this country's public defender system, take a look at Bob Slameka.

Mr. ROBERT SLAMEKA (Public Defender): Good morning, Your Honor. Robert Slameka for Mr. West. Judge, I think we're going to attempt to resolve this if we can.

CHANG: Slameka has gotten into trouble a lot during his 40 years as a public defender, but the county is still appointing him to cases.

Mr. SLAMEKA: But if we don't, I think the prosecution is going to ask you for a date other than what you've given us for a trial date.

CHANG: Records show the state Supreme Court has reprimanded him for misconduct with more than 16 clients, mostly for not keeping them informed about their cases and filing papers late. And one of his clients made national headlines in 2002.

(Soundbite of news broadcast)

Unidentified Man #1: In Detroit today, a man who actually confessed to raping and killing a teenage girl has been exonerated. Once again, the difference between prison and freedom was a DNA test.

CHANG: Eddie Joe Lloyd spent 17 years in prison for a rape and murder he never committed. Slameka took on Lloyd's appeal. And in the two years he handled the case, he never once met with his client or accepted any of his phone calls. The appeal went nowhere. Lloyd didn't get out of prison until a national advocacy group took on the case. And you know why Slameka says he couldn't do more for Lloyd? Because the government doesn't pay public defenders like him enough money.

Mr. SLAMEKA: I don't get paid for his long-distance phone calls from Jackson prison. My god, these run up - I don't how much money. And you don't get paid for that stuff. Nothing. I did the best I could, given what I had. That's all I could do.

CHANG: Critics say he's right. Slameka might sound extreme, but he reflects widespread problems across the country.

In New York, because there aren't enough defenders, overworked lawyers tell me they show up for trials ready to tell the judge they've done nothing on the case. In Miami, they say the only way they can squeeze in jail visits is if they work every weekend. And here in Detroit, public defenders haven't seen a raise in more than 30 years. Slameka has to take on 50 clients at a time to earn a living.

One former public defender, Frank Eaman, is now suing the state to get more money for the system.

Mr. FRANK EAMAN (Public Defender): I know I have friends who work in that court, who break their back trying to defend people to the utmost and doing whatever they can do. They're constantly expressing their frustration to me of how hard it is to do that.

CHANG: Eaman says here's the problem: Public defenders in Detroit don't get paid for some of the most basic things, like communicating with their clients. Just like Slameka said, they don't get paid for their time making phone calls or for writing letters. And in most cases, they only get paid for one jail visit - that's 50 bucks. So when a client's in jail, one of the few times Bob Slameka ends up talking to them is just minutes before court appearances.

Mr. SLAMEKA: Kelly(ph)? How are you doing?

CHANG: When they're in the bullpen, like right now, it's a cell next to the judge's chambers, where they cart defendants over from the county jail.

Mr. SLAMEKA: We're here today in front of Judge Strong(ph). And then he'll make you the same offer again, like I said downstairs, one to four or go to trial, you know. That decision is yours.

CHANG: Slameka's got silver hair down to his shoulders. He's peering into a small window in a steel door at his client. She's been accused of assaulting a woman with a knife.

Unidentified Woman #1: So would it be a good idea for me take it to trial or no?

CHANG: He doesn't tell her what to do, but it's very clear he has little interest in taking this case to trial.

Critics like Frank Eaman say a lot of appointed defenders at this point will urge their clients to plead guilty, because they're not paid enough to fully prepare for trial. A defender gets 180 bucks for a basic, full-day trial. Eaman says that doesn't even come close to covering trial costs.

Mr. EAMAN: The system does not provide the lawyers with the tools they need to defend their clients. Investigators are very important, expert witnesses are very important. You get such a small amount of money that you can't really find anybody to do the work for you.

CHANG: Eaman says defenders also don't go to trial that often because they don't have the time. They make so little money per case, they have to take on a lot of cases just to stay afloat. Avoiding trial and pleading clients out means more cases. And that's another problem: Public defense has become a volume business. Some lawyers take on dozens, even hundreds of cases at a time.

Unidentified Man #2: All rise.

Mr. SLAMEKA: Here we go.

Unidentified Man #2: First Circuit Court for the county of Wayne is now in session.

CHANG: Bob Slameka will be in four different courtrooms by the end of today - that's a light day. Slameka says he never leans on his clients to plead guilty, but he's not shy about trying to get a case over with. One of his clients wants to claim self-defense after shooting and killing an unarmed man. Slameka thinks they wouldn't have a chance in front of a jury. So he pulls the prosecutor into the hallway when his client isn't around.

Mr. SLAMEKA: Look, between you and I, we should resolve this case.

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah, I know. I've tried to…

Mr. SLAMEKA: You just can't just shoot people on the street.

Unidentified Woman #2: When I was reading it, that's what I was thinking as well. I mean…

Mr. SLAMEKA: You know, and he's trying to claim self-defense. I don't think it's viable.

Unidentified Woman #2: With multiple gunshots at close range like that.

Mr. SLAMEKA: What, is it about five?

Unidentified Woman #2: Yeah. I mean…

Mr. SLAMEKA: Yeah, doesn't fly. I understand. But he's of a different mind. But I think if we make some kind of reasonable offer, we can resolve it.

Unidentified Woman #2: Well, we'll do it…

CHANG: Is this justice or commerce? Critics like Eaman, the former defender who's now suing the state, say public defenders should do everything they possibly can for their clients. The whole system is based on the idea that a lawyer must remain a vigorous advocate.

Mr. EAMAN: Robert Slameka and other lawyers of his type, there are too many of them in the court system. There are too many that take shortcuts.

CHANG: But again, the system encourages those shortcuts. One of the judges on the Michigan Court of Appeals says that's the root of the problem. Cynthia Stephens presided over trials in Detroit for more than 20 years. More than 90 percent of all criminal defendants in Wayne County can't afford their own lawyers. She says the defenders appointed to those people get away with shoddy work.

Judge CYNTHIA STEPHENS (Michigan Court of Appeals): I've seen some appellate briefs that have worried me. They seem like they came out of a can. I mean, so much so that they're citing a principle of law that probably had to do with the last two cases, but doesn't fit in this one.

CHANG: Stephens says what worries her most aren't the lawyers getting F grades. Those lawyers are so incompetent, they get caught. She's more worried about the mediocre lawyers - the ones she says get Cs and Ds. And that's another problem with the public defender system. The state will slap lawyers on the wrist, but will allow them to keep representing some of the most vulnerable members of society.

Ms. RUTH HARLIN: I would not let a public defender defend anyone in my family ever again - ever, ever again.

CHANG: Ruth Harlin is Eddie Joe Lloyd's sister. Remember him? Bob Slameka lost his appeal even though it turned out, years later, he was innocent. If someone close to Harlin needed a defense lawyer now, she says she'd do whatever it took to pay for a lawyer.

Ms. HARLIN: I'd mortgage the house.

CHANG: Slameka still has a full book of business today. Meanwhile, Harlin's life has been turned upside down. When her brother lost his appeal, he filed a complaint with the state. He told them Slameka never gave him the time of day. Harlin still has a copy of Slameka's rebuttal.

Ms. HARLIN: This is a handwritten note from attorney Slameka.

CHANG: As she reads Slameka's words, her hands shake.

Ms. HARLIN: This is a sick individual who raped, kidnapped and strangled a young woman on her way to school. His claim of my wrongdoing is frivolous, just as is his existence. Both should be terminated.

CHANG: I asked Slameka, did you really think your own client should be executed?

Mr. SLAMEKA: That's exactly what I wrote. That's exactly how I felt. You know something? Because of people's actions, a lot of people don't deserve to live. Okay? You take people's lives — I'm not saying eye for an eye, okay? I'm not going there. But because of the nature of your behavior, sometimes maybe you don't deserve to live on this earth.

CHANG: I reminded Slameka that Lloyd never actually killed anyone. He brushed that off. He said he didn't have DNA evidence at the time, and criminal defense is a very different job now. Well, except for a few things. Crushing caseloads and skimpy pay have strained public defenders for more than 40 years. And year after year here in Detroit, prosecutors get twice the funding defenders do.

Ailsa Chang, NPR News.

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