Government & Politics

ACLU lawsuit says Missouri’s public defender system ‘robbing people’ of their rights

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a class-action lawsuit Thursday accusing the state of not adequately funding its public defender system.

“This lawsuit is the result of years of neglect by legislators and governors of both parties,” said Tony Rothert, legal director for the ACLU of Missouri. “During good financial times and bad financial times, Missouri has consistently neglected the public defender system. It’s an embarrassment that’s robbing people of their Sixth Amendment rights.

“If you’re accused of a crime, you have the right to an attorney even if you can’t afford one, and that’s what keeps the system fair.”

The lawsuit names, among others, the state; Michael Barrett, the director of Missouri’s public defenders system; and Gov. Eric Greitens. The governor’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The lead plaintiff in the case is Kansas City resident Shondel Church, who was charged with misdemeanor theft in July 2016 and jailed for nearly a month and a half before seeing a public defender, according to the petition.

The attorney told Church that he had a winnable case, but should plead guilty because the public defender had a large workload, and Church would have to wait in jail for several months until the attorney would be ready for a trial. Church remained in jail for three months before deciding to plead guilty, the suit says.

While incarcerated, Church lost his job and his family lost their home.

According to the suit, the Missouri state public defender’s office employs about 370 attorneys and 200 administrative staff to represent defendants in more than 80,000 cases a year.

The suit cites 10 studies going back to 1989 that identified “serious deficiencies in (the system’s) implementation, in both criminal and juvenile court … putting state officials on notice that a constitutional crisis was looming.”

In August, Barrett appointed Gov. Jay Nixon as a defense attorney to represent a client who couldn’t afford one of his own. The appointment, Barrett said, was to bring attention to repeated budget cuts that left his office unable to hire enough public defenders.

But the court in Cole County ruled later that month that Barrett didn’t have the authority to make such appointments.

Barrett, in a statement Thursday, said:

“I’ve done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in. That poor persons, including poor children, are being pushed through the criminal justice system, fined excessively, and deprived of their liberty, without receiving the benefit of an attorney who has the necessary time to look into their case.

“Despite their claims of support for liberty and against big government, the state has chosen to neglect an indigent defense system that ranks 49th in the U.S. while enthusiastically spending more than a $100 million in new money on incarcerating the very citizens who were deprived of their right to counsel.”

The Missouri State Public Defender System had also sued Nixon in July over whether the governor had the authority to cut the system’s budget by 8.5 percent. In November, the Cole County Circuit Court said Nixon did.

The ACLU has similar class-action lawsuits pending against Fresno County, Calif.; Orleans Parish, La.; and the state of Idaho.