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Missouri’s public defender office hints at lawsuit over funding levels

Missouri spends about $6.40 per resident on indigent defense services, about half the national average.
Missouri spends about $6.40 per resident on indigent defense services, about half the national average. jvillegas@sacbee.com

The director of Missouri’s public defender system has written a blistering letter to Gov. Jay Nixon, asking for a 25 percent increase in state spending to properly represent poor clients.

The alternative, Michael Barrett suggests in the letter, is a lawsuit.

“Missouri’s contempt for the rights of poor persons is … evident by its rank of 49 among 50 states in the amount of support provided for indigent defense,” the letter says.

Barrett says the state’s public defenders are overworked and underpaid. Missouri spends about $6.40 per resident on indigent defense services, about half the national average. The office’s budget is $38.4 million.

Nixon has defended that level of spending. In an email, a spokeswoman said funding for the public defender’s office increased by $2.3 million between 2010 and 2015.

But Barrett said the state should have the money to increase public defender funding by $10 million this year. The state recently announced spending to improve the state fairgrounds, build a new state park and fund the new St. Louis football stadium.

“These luxuries, while appealing to some, cannot compare with the state’s obligation to to ensure that every Missourian, regardless of means, enjoys equal protection under the law,” the letter says.

The American Civil Liberties Union has met with Missouri’s public defender community to discuss a lawsuit against the state. Barrett refers to a similar Idaho lawsuit in his letter but says he wants to work out the problem without resorting to the courts.

The Star wrote in July about the controversy over spending for the public defender’s office.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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