Workload immense in public defender system

Hughes believes funding an issue

Posted 2/18/19

Bradley County Public Defender Richard Hughes told members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary club he had many advantages when he was growing up.He made his remarks during a recent morning gathering of …

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Workload immense in public defender system

Hughes believes funding an issue


Bradley County Public Defender Richard Hughes told members of the Bradley Sunrise Rotary club he had many advantages when he was growing up.

He made his remarks during a recent morning gathering of the organization.

Hughes said he was raised in an upper-middle-class home and had the opportunity to attend college, where he later graduated before moving on to graduate from law school.

Those advantages are on his mind every day when he works to defend those who have been accused of running afoul of the law.

"I represent people who didn't have what I have," Hughes said.

While Hughes said his staff is the best he's ever had working for him, the case workload is immense.

Hughes said the state public defender system was created 30 years ago when state officials realized Tennessee needed a comprehensive defense system for the indigent.

Before the formation of the office, private attorneys were assigned such cases.

But while the formation of the public defender's office was a huge step in the state legal system, lawmakers have not always been reliable when it comes to funding.

Hughes' concern was echoed by former Tennessee Supreme Court Justice William C. Koch Jr., who, during an address made to members of the Bradley County Bar Association, said the criminal defense system in Tennessee is "chronically underfunded."

While there have been some increases in funding in recent years, Koch worried they were not enough. In addition, Koch said the lack of attorneys in the Tennessee General Assembly may have a negative effect on future appropriations devoted to public defenders.

“This is the trickiest Legislature I have ever seen,” Koch said. “There are not many lawyers. We need representatives who understand what we do.”

Hughes said the increase in drug-related cases is creating a hardship for the court system who have to deal with cases that involved nonviolent offenses.

He relates the epidemic to the "balloon effect," meaning if one squeezes a balloon, the air inside just moves to a different place. It's the same with drugs.

Several years ago, meth labs were prevalent and responsible for the high number of methamphetamine that was out on the street.

However, the presence of local labs has decreased since Tennessee passed a law limiting the availability of pseudoephedrine to consumers.

"It's one of the best things the state has done," Hughes said. "We saw a deep decrease in homemade labs."

However, many drug users switched to other forms of abuse, with opioids becoming a part of the balloon effect.

Another problem that exacerbated the opioid crisis: many were prescribed for minor illnesses, increasing not only the likelihood of become addicted to them, but also increasing their availability to those who weren't prescribed them.

Although drug abuse is against the law, Hughes said many are nonviolent offenders who need help overcoming their addiction. As a result, courtrooms, which are already clogged with cases, may not be the best venue to help nonviolent offenders change their lives.

"We are trying to help them get them out of the court system," Hughes said.

In addition, he said the current system results in jail overcrowding.

Hughes said specialized drug courts can go a long way in battling drug addiction. However, some defendants resist treatment.

"My job is to find the best possible solution for them," Hughes said. "But some think they don't need drug court, and I will see them again in court months later."

Tennessee new governor, Bill Lee, may help change how the state deals with noncriminal offenders.

During his inaugural address, Lee said efforts must be made to help nonviolent offender reenter society after leaving prison.

"Half of them commit crimes again and return to prison within the first three years," Lee said. "We need to help nonviolent criminals re-enter society, and not re-enter prison.”

While Hughes is hopeful criminal justice reform and the fight against opioid abuse will improve during the Lee Administration, he worries that the rising availability of fentanyl will further burden the legal system, as well as result in more overdoses.

"People don't understand the purity of this drug," Hughes said. "Fentanyl will kill you."


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