Government belt-tightening has a way of coming down hardest on the poor. For many years, the state of Missouri has squeezed those in need of legal representation, and a recent report identifies a true crisis.
The state’s publicly funded criminal defense attorneys are so overwhelmed that justice is hardly possible for individuals facing trial. That borders on being unconstitutional, , according to a study by the American Bar Association.
Workloads on the state’s 376 defense attorneys are untenable, say advocates for the Missouri State Public Defender System.
Prosecutors file more cases, more criminal defendants face the possibility of jail and the number of defense attorneys pretty much remains the same. That means “it’s virtually impossible to spend the amount of time necessary to prepare for trial,” Max Mitchell, district public defender in Sedalia, told The Star.
Turnover is chronic and the possibility of imprisoning innocent people increases as defense attorneys are unable to prepare adequately for cases.
Four years ago, Sean O’Brien, a veteran public defender who now teaches at the UMKC School of Law, wrote a Missouri Law Review article that described how the state’s public defenders have operated in a beleaguered system for so long “that many attorneys do not even know what competent representation is.” In 2008, one study found that Missouri’s Public Defender System is the most poorly funded of all 50 states.
The legislature, the courts and the Missouri Bar share responsibility for providing a legal safety net that operates to the benefit of citizens facing prosecution.
In the last session, the Missouri legislature passed a $3.5 million budget boost for the system, which would fund backup private lawyers in certain cases. Unfortunately, that came at the same time lawmakers were passing a reckless income tax cut. Consequently, Gov. Jay Nixon found it necessary to veto that budget item along with others.
Which puts the state in a quandary. Lawmakers could well override Nixon’s veto in the session beginning today. But will the funds be there?
Another recommendation from the bar association: Lawmakers could reclassify certain nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors, taking an undetermined amount of cases off the shoulders of public defenders across the state. That would be a start toward fixing a broken and vital legal system.