Herald-Whig View

Missouri must find funds for public defenders

Posted: Nov. 10, 2017 11:00 am

THE Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution guarantees that everyone entering the criminal justice system has the right to adequate legal counsel.

However, the Missouri Public Defender's Office is struggling to provide necessary representation to defendants who are unable to hire their own attorney because of high caseloads caused by chronic underfunding and constant staff turnover.

This should be a cause for alarm for members of the Missouri Legislature when they return to work in January.

Published reports earlier this year showed that the state's 370 public defenders handle more than 80,000 criminal cases a year for indigent clients -- an average of 216 cases per attorney.

Numerous studies that have looked at Missouri's system say it should have nearly twice as many lawyers to meet standards set by the American Bar Association for the minimal time needed to adequately represent clients.

Unfortunately, while the problem is widespread nationally, the Missouri public defender system has been underfunded for decades. Only Mississippi spends less than the $355 per case Missouri currently allocates to its indigent defense budget.

The lack of funding and increased workload has led to a 25 percent turnover rate among public defenders, creating a vicious cycle.

The ACLU last spring filed a class-action lawsuit, claiming Missouri's public defender system is so badly underfunded and understaffed its lawyers are unable to provide even rudimentary representation for indigent clients, who often languish in jail or appear in court without attorneys.

Michael Barrett, director of the state public defender system, made headlines in 2016 when he assigned a case to then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a lawyer and former state attorney general.

While a court later ruled that Barrett overstepped his authority, it served to publicize the problem -- but it did not lead to any solutions.

The state appropriated $41.5 million for the public defender office for fiscal year 2017, a $4.5 million increase from the previous year. But Nixon then cut $3.5 million to help balance the state budget. While some of that funding was restored for the current fiscal year, most agree it's not nearly enough.

While there clearly are no simple solutions, striving to better provide legal counsel for those who need it should be a priority for Missouri lawmakers.