The long battle to provide adequate legal help for Missouri's indigent criminal defendants continues.
The Missouri Court of Appeals recently ordered Jackson County Presiding Judge John Torrence to take evidence concerning the workloads of two public defenders in the county. The defenders contend they and their colleagues are too busy to provide effective counsel for criminal suspects, which the Constitution guarantees.
The judge blames the heavy public defender workload on inefficiencies in their office. Large caseloads "have primarily resulted from the creation of bad policies that have been self-inflicted,” his original order said.
Lectures in work efficiency from a judge are always interesting to say the least. But the Court of Appeals rightly notes that Torrence's order should have come after a full hearing on the record, with actual evidence for the appeals judges to review.
The hearing should be held later this year.
This latest spat is just one part of an ongoing effort to provide adequate legal help for indigents accused of a crime. The American Civil Liberties Union has filed a separate federal lawsuit in Missouri, claiming spending for indigent defense in the state is simply too low.
This year, lawmakers authorized $49.6 million for the Missouri State Public Defender System. While it's an improvement over previous budgets, it's still far short of the estimated $75 million the office says it needs to provide defendants with adequate representation.
Public defenders must handle 80,000 cases a year, the ACLU says, with roughly 370 lawyers. It takes only common sense to know that ratio is out of whack.
Anecdotal evidence? Recently, a defendant sat in the horrific Jackson County jail for more than a year — for a crime he did not commit. It took that long for an overworked public defender to investigate his case.
Virtually everyone involved in criminal justice in Missouri knows the problem. Yet judges and state officials, relying in part on public disdain for suspects' rights, have fought against the defense lawyers — and the Constitution — for months.
That should stop. Attorney General Josh Hawley, who recently expressed deep respect for the Constitution, could demonstrate actual belief in that document by reaching an appropriate settlement with the ACLU. The settlement should guarantee full funding for the public defenders system.
Gov. Mike Parson, a former law enforcement official, should encourage such settlement talks. Surely he understands defendants have an absolute right to effective counsel. Judge Torrence should understand that, too.
The legislature also must step forward next year to tackle this issue.
We understand the public is sometimes worried about defending suspects accused of horrific crimes. But the Constitution says everyone deserves a lawyer. That requirement should be honored in Missouri.