Editorials

Editorial: Missouri’s public-defender problems a failure of leadership

For legions of indigent Missourians, the public defender system has
failed to provide anything close to an acceptable defense.
For legions of indigent Missourians, the public defender system has failed to provide anything close to an acceptable defense.

No one can say that Missouri wasn’t warned over and over again.

Last week’s decision by the American Civil Liberties Union-Missouri to file a massive class-action lawsuit against the state over its embarrassingly inadequate public defender system was as predictable as the morning sunrise. Lawyers and other officials had cautioned the state for years that the system was broken and failing to provide its clients with adequate representation.

That it came to this — another lawsuit that will, of course, take years and millions of dollars to resolve — is an utter failure of leadership and a situation that could have been avoided with even a smidgen of foresight.

The problem here is Missouri’s adamant refusal to fund a functioning system. Remember, the right to an attorney is spelled out in a document called the United States Constitution that our politicians swear to uphold. But for legions of indigent Missourians, the public defender system has failed to provide anything close to an acceptable defense.

The horror stories have become routine: misdemeanor charges that result in weeks passing before a jailed client can meet with a public defender because of crushing workloads. Or clients with kids at home who face wrenching choices between months-long stints in jail so that an attorney can prepare a case or pleading guilty and getting out sooner.

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Jobs, even careers, are often on the line, not to mention families and marriages.

Ask almost any lawyer, and they’ll shake their heads when asked about a system so broken as to be laughable.

Two things are true here: There’s little political will in state capitals anywhere to spend the dollars needed on a program for defendants who are too poor to pay for lawyers. Other priorities, such as public schools and better highways, crowd ahead.

But that still is no excuse. The responsibility for such programs falls squarely on the shoulders of the states.

A second truism: Missouri can hardly cry that it doesn’t have the money. Like Kansas, which passed huge tax cuts only to face a similarly massive lawsuit over school funding, Missouri has trimmed taxes by millions of dollars in recent years. In Kansas, that undermined the state’s case, and it could in Missouri, too.

Consider Missouri’s public defender system by the numbers:

▪ Missouri ranks 49th in spending on indigent defense. At $355 a case, the state’s spending tops only Mississippi’s.

▪ The system has but 370 lawyers to handle 80,000 cases when studies show that nearly twice that many lawyers are needed. That means lawyers have far too little time to spend on any one case.

▪ Even in serious cases, Missouri’s public defenders typically spend about nine hours per case. That’s less than 20 percent of the minimum time the American Bar Association recommends.

▪ Missouri spends $6.20 per resident on the system. That’s just one-third of the national average, the lawsuit said.

Annual pleas and even a publicity stunt last year that involved the head of Missouri’s system demanding that then-Gov. Jay Nixon, an attorney himself, try a case just haven’t worked.

The fix? Some $20 million more a year in additional spending, the suit says. Other states face similar legal actions.

Missouri has spent years buying time by studying the issue to death. That clock has expired. Missouri now has nowhere to run.

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