The people of Missouri deserve an effective criminal justice system where prosecutors and public defenders have adequate resources. Unfortunately, that currently is not the case in Missouri.
As reported in the Kansas City Star’s Aug. 17 article titled “Missouri’s public defense lawyers are overworked, bar association study finds,” a recent study found that our state’s “publicly funded criminal defense lawyers do not have enough time to effectively represent their poor clients.”
This new data reinforce what many have described for years as a workload crisis in the Missouri State Public Defender System. The study, a project of the Missouri State Public Defender System and the American Bar Association, is evidence of that.
We commend the Missouri State Public Defender System for being the first public defender system in the nation to take this critical step of having public defenders keep their time to document the workload concerns. This data-driven study helps shine light on the ongoing struggle of having enough time to devote to every case opened.
The Missouri Bar believes the state needs to look at ways to assure an effective criminal justice system for the people of Missouri.
In this past session, the Missouri legislature made efforts to ease the public defender system’s caseload and improve the efficiency in representing those charged with a crime who cannot afford an attorney. The General Assembly added $3.47 million to the state budget to allow the Missouri State Public Defender System to contract out conflict cases involving co-defendants to private attorneys who practice in the county where the co-defendant is charged.
Currently when there is a conflict, the co-defendant would be assigned an assistant public defender from another circuit.
Let’s think about what all that entails. The current practice requires the assistant public defender handling the conflict case to travel to another circuit for court appearances, jail visits, investigations, witness interviews and depositions. And that’s all just for one client.
In some cases, an assistant public defender can be assigned to represent co-defendants in multiple counties.
This time spent devoted to traveling significantly reduces the amount of time spent handling cases in their assigned jurisdiction. This only exacerbates the caseload concerns outlined earlier.
Simply put, the current approach is not cost effective and does not best serve the clients of the public defender system.
The bottom line is the $3.47 million in funding is needed to help mitigate the effects of overwhelming caseloads by allowing public defenders to spend less time on the road and more time representing clients.
The Missouri Bar supports this funding to contract co-defendant cases to private counsel.
In fact, our criminal justice task force last year recommended exploring efficiency of representation for those who cannot afford an attorney by contract counsel.
We commend the legislature’s approval of this additional funding as a positive first step in guaranteeing every Missourian’s constitutional right to an attorney. Unfortunately, the $3.47 million for contracting cases was vetoed from the state budget. But, the legislature will meet next week in its veto session. We ask the members of the General Assembly to again put justice first and override this veto.
Jack Brady is president of the Missouri Bar.