A new study suggests that Missouri public defenders are not spending enough time representing clients due to heavy caseloads.
“It demonstrates precisely what we have been asserting for years — that our caseloads are at crisis level, and despite the efforts of committed and skilled public defenders, many of our clients do not receive the level of representation that is guaranteed by the U.S. and Missouri constitutions,” Michael Barrett, general counsel for the Missouri Public Defender system, stated in an email to The Missourian.
At 132 percent capacity, the Union office has the lowest caseload-to-attorney ratio of the 33 district offices in the Missouri public defender system, according to Barrett.
The public defender office in Union has five attorneys and covers Gasconade and Franklin counties and, just recently, Osage County, Barrett said.
There were 1,268 cases opened in the Union office for Gasconade and Franklin counties in fiscal year 2013, he added.
Not Enough Time Spent on Cases
The American Bar Association study found that across numerous case types the number of hours that public defenders reported working on those cases was considerably less than what should be spent on those cases.
For instance, the average number of reported hours that public defenders in Missouri reported working on murder/homicide cases was 84.5 hours while experts in the field concluded that 106.6 hours should be spent on those cases to provide “reasonably effective defense.”
More Attorneys, Reclassify Crimes
To address the problem, the American Bar Association recommends two different approaches.
One is for the state Legislature to provide more funding so additional public defenders can be hired.
Another idea is to reclassify certain nonviolent crimes as misdemeanors or civil offenses so that they do not require imprisonment.
If certain crimes were reclassified to only require penalties such as probation or fines, then public defender representation would not be required, according to the ABA
That would free up time for public defenders to work on other cases.
State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Pacific, had not read the study but said it could be the case that more funding is needed for public defenders.
Curtman also said that there may be too many laws on the books and that they could possibly be scaled back.
The ABA’s recommendation that some crimes be reclassified sounds reasonable, Curtman said. It is possible that some nonviolent crimes could be reclassified as misdemeanors, he noted.
“I would be open to having those debates and those decisions for sure,” he said.
Barrett said the answer is more attorneys. He noted that the Legislature passed $3.4 million in funding that could have been used to contract out “conflict” cases involving multiple defendants to private attorneys. But that funding was vetoed by the governor, Barrett noted.
Historically, cases involving multiple defendants have been handled within the state public defender system, Barrett said. For example if there was a case involving two defendants in Franklin County, one of them would be represented by a public defender in the Union office, while the other would be represented by a public defender in another district office, such as Phelps County, Barrett explained.
This is not a cost-effective approach and aggravates the caseload problem, he said. The fact that the public defender has to travel to another district to represent a client “reduces the defender’s ability to efficiently handle his or her caseload in the assigned county or circuit, which often results in unnecessary continuances in those courts,” Barrett stated in his email. “It is much more efficient to contract out conflict cases to private attorneys who practice in the county where the co-defendant is charged.”
The Missouri State Public Defender system employs about 560 people, and about 350 of them are attorneys. Statewide, the agency provides representation in about 90,000 cases a year.
There have been no public defender caseload studies that have been this thorough and authoritative, according to the ABA. Prior to this study most of the information has been anecdotal, but now public defenders have empirical evidence to take to the state Legislature to seek more funding, the ABA says.
Lisa Preddy, public defender for Franklin County, could not be reached for comment.