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History of the Office

1979 - 1990

Dennis Keefe
Dennis Keefe

In January of 1979, Dennis Keefe who had previously served as the office's first law clerk (1971-1973) and then as a deputy (1973-1975) became Lancaster County's second elected public defender. At that time, the office included eight full time attorneys, including Keefe, two secretaries and four part-time law clerks. The overall caseload appeared to be excessive and there was specific concern regarding the ever- increasing "Municipal Court" caseload.

NLADA Evaluation

At Keefe's request, the National Legal Aid and Defender Association (NLADA) of Washington, D.C. performed an evaluation of the office in August of 1979. The evaluator was Howard B. Eisenberg, former State Public Defender for Wisconsin and then Defender Director of NLADA. While the evaluation complimented the office personnel as "exceptionally dedicated individuals" the report noted the following regarding staffing:

It is apparent to me that the single major problem facing your office is one of inadequate staffing.

* * *

It is clear that since 1972 the caseload in your office has exceeded national guidelines quite substantially. If the 1979 projections hold true, [and they did] your office will be handling almost 50% more cases than are recommended in the national guidelines.

In addition, these national guidelines assume adequate support staff such as secretaries and investigators. It is my judgment that your office has insufficient secretarial support, and requires full time investigators.

* * *

Based on the statistics alone, I would suggest that a minimal staffing increase of three lawyers, one secretary and two investigators is warranted. Indeed, this may still be below national guidelines, but I think it is realistically a staff that could provide representation in Lancaster County.

Response to NLADA Evaluation

Following the NLADA evaluation of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office, the Lincoln Bar Association, after study by the Judicial Administration Committee, recommended the addition of two staff attorneys. The Lancaster County Board accepted and approved the recommendation and in 1980 two new staff attorney positions were added.

The remainder of the evaluator's recommendations regarding staff were much later in bearing fruit. It wasn't until 1983 that an additional secretarial position and one paralegal position were approved by the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners.

Clerical assistance has been supplemented by volunteer interns. These interns are students who earn credit hours by working in the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office at no cost to the county.

Case Management

In November, 1980, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office was selected as a test site for a then new manual case management/calendaring system developed by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. The AMICUS system was tested and fully implemented in the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office by January of 1981. Its purpose was to provide a historical record of each case, to help the attorneys manage cases, to provide central calendaring for the office and to provide management with information concerning cases, caseload, and workload.

In 1985, the County City Data Processing Department, through the Criminal Justice Information System (CJIS), developed and began implementation of an expanded computerized version of AMICUS for the Public Defender. Full implementation of this automated program, nicknamed "GIDEON," was accomplished by the end of 1986.

Sentencing Alternatives

In 1981, the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office was selected by the Edna McConnell Clarke Foundation of New York City and NLADA to receive grant start up funds for an alternative sentencing center. Thus began the Nebraska Center on Sentencing Alternatives (NCSA). NCSA took referrals from private attorneys, court appointed counsel and public defenders. The director then assigned a case planner to develop a sentencing plan for the client which was used by the Judge as an alternative to confining the individual.

NCSA was originally housed at the University of Nebraska Special Vocational Needs office, but later moved to share office space with the Lancaster County Pre-trial Diversion Program for a short period of time. Local private foundation funding and case fees supported NCSA after the initial funding year. For a variety of reasons, including a lack of funding, NCSA ceased providing services in 1990.

Reginald Heber Smith Award

The Lancaster County Public Defender's Office was honored nationally in 1989 with the Reginald Heber Smith Award presented to Richard L. Goos by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. Mr. Goos was nominated for the award, which recognizes outstanding achievements by a public defender lawyer, by Robert Grimit, then president of the Nebraska State Bar Association. His nomination was seconded by members of the Nebraska Supreme Court, the District and County Court and past and present co- workers as well as scores of private attorneys.

Mr. Goos was formally presented with the award before more than 700 people at the NLADA's annual awards dinner in Kansas City, Missouri on November 17, 1989. Over 40 people attended from Lincoln, Nebraska.

Spangenberg Report

In 1990 the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners, at the request of Lancaster County Public Defender Dennis Keefe, contracted with The Spangenberg Group of West Newton, Massachusetts, specialists in indigent defense systems, to conduct a study of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office with regard to (1) internal management actions that could increase the operating efficiency of the office and (2) development of caseload/workload standards for the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. After reviewing numerous materials relating to the caseload and staffing of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office and following a three day site visit in July of 1990, a final report entitled "Study of the Current Operation of the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office" was presented to the Lancaster County Board of Commissioners by Patricia A. Smith, Vice President of The Spangenberg Group in March of 1991.

Prior to listing their findings and recommendations, The Spangenberg Group commented on the office as follows:

It is evident that the office is well-managed. The individual attorney caseloads are monitored carefully, using the GIDEON MIS, and work is distributed in a fair and efficient manner. Although the caseload is at a very serious level, the attitude of the attorneys is concerned, but positive. The staff is hardworking, very competent, and exhibits a high level of cooperation. Their work is held in high regard by the courts and law enforcement.

The Spangenberg Group went on to make seven specific recommendations regarding the Lancaster County Public Defender's Office. Steps have been taken with regard to each of the recommendations to improve the operating efficiency of the office.