Editorials

Missouri AG wants to punish the poor by overworking and underfunding public defenders

Justice served? Public defender juggles more than 100 cases

In a December interview, public defender Laura O'Sullivan in Kansas City says she has more than 100 cases open amid a crisis among overworked public defenders across Missouri.
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In a December interview, public defender Laura O'Sullivan in Kansas City says she has more than 100 cases open amid a crisis among overworked public defenders across Missouri.

Missouri’s unconscionable effort to deny poor defendants effective legal representation is escalating, to the state’s shame.

The state’s public defender system is pathetically underfunded. Missouri pays for roughly 313 trial division public attorneys who handled more than 75,000 cases in fiscal year 2016. That’s about 240 cases per lawyer.

The average cost per case? About $356. “Missouri ranks 49th among the 50 states in funding for indigent defense,” a federal court found in February.

You might think that shocking statistic would prompt the state to find additional money for the public defender’s office. Their lawyers are chronically overworked, to the obvious detriment of their clients, and dramatically underpaid.

Yet for years, Missouri has ducked its constitutional and moral responsibility to provide poor defendants with adequate legal counsel. Things are so bad the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit in 2017 to compel the state to improve its public defender system.

This week, the ACLU and the Missouri State Public Defender reached a tentative agreement to settle that lawsuit. While the agreement does not provide additional money for attorneys, it establishes caps on public defenders’ workloads.

This has outraged Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who filed motions this week to intervene in the case and stop the settlement.

Schmitt’s request is flawed in several ways. For more than a year, Missouri fought to take itself out of the case, claiming “sovereign immunity” from such lawsuits. That request was granted. Now, at the 11th hour, with a settlement on the table, Schmitt wants the state back in the case.

Why? Because the ACLU and the defenders’ office are in cahoots, he says, leaving Missourians exposed. “The attorney general has a fundamental interest in protecting public safety ... and ensuring the integrity of a criminal prosecution,” Schmitt’s motion states.

Yes, Mr. Schmitt. And there’s an obvious way for Missouri to do both: Spend more money to hire more indigent defense lawyers.

Of course, the attorney general and his colleagues have no interest in doing that. Instead, they want to browbeat the court into ordering defense lawyers to work for next to nothing for months on end. That way, the state can send more poor people to prison by neglecting their rights to a fair trial.

We get it, lawmakers. You don’t like the poor. You don’t think they deserve decent health care or help with feeding their families. The Constitution, though, requires you to provide a lawyer for criminal suspects too poor to hire one. You can’t meet that obligation by throwing $350 bucks at a case.

Underfunding the public defender is politically popular because it’s hard to find much sympathy for people who get arrested. But a fair criminal justice system does more than prosecute the guilty. It also protects the innocent, which means all of us.

Adequate spending for the public defender’s office is an essential part of that protection.

In his request to intervene, Schmitt claims he want to protect Missouri “and all of its people.” It isn’t true. “All the people” includes defendants who must have adequate representation in court. His request, which ignores those defendants, should be rejected, and the settlement should proceed.

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