Missouri's Public Defenders
6:26 am
Wed September 26, 2012

Public Defenders Can Now Refuse Cases – But Seek Long-Term Solution

Missouri’s public defenders won a big case before the state supreme court this summer.

The high court ruled a judge in Christian County erred when he appointed a public defender after that district said they could handle no new cases.

It’s part of a protocol that Missouri’s public defender system put in place to deal with what they call a caseload crisis.

But as St. Louis Public Radio’s Maria Altman reports no one believes turning away poor defendants is the best solution.

Making a problem visible

Most everyone has heard Miranda rights recited in movies and on crime shows like Law & Order.

The right to an attorney, even for the poor, is guaranteed by our Constitution and embedded in our culture.

But in Missouri public defenders say they can’t provide competent representation when they’re handling 200 or more cases per attorney.

“What this opinion does is make the problem visible,” said Cat Kelly, the director of Missouri’s public defender system.

She’s relieved the state Supreme Court upheld, in one case at least, that public defenders can turn away clients.

“The problem that we’ve had is when you have way too many cases assigned to too few lawyers they’re able to do a little bit on each case, but not what needs to be done on each case,” she said. 

"The problem that we've had is when you have way too many cases assigned to too few lawyers they're able to do a little bit on each case, but not what needs to be done on each case." - Cat Kelly

So this fall public defenders are likely to begin turning away cases; a move Kelly dislikes but believes is necessary.

Kelly says a far better solution would be to rein in the kinds of cases going through Missouri’s criminal justice system.

“Missouri has laws you can get up to a year in jail for having your pet on a leash longer than 12 feet,” Kelly said.

A weight on public defenders - and taxpayers

Any offense with even the possibility of jail, no matter how unlikely that sentence, means poor defendants have a right to a public defender.

Some say that’s not just weighing down public defender’s desks but taxpayers as well.

“When you take a look at the Department of Corrections’ budget, the judiciary, and prosecutors’ office we’re spending a lot more money on issues like these than we are things like education in the state,” said Peter Joy, director of the Washington University Criminal Justice Clinic.

Joy points out the number of non-violent offenders locked up in Missouri prisons is about 14,000.

That’s nearly double what it was 15 years ago.

Meanwhile funding for the Department of Corrections has tripled.

Joy says the legislature should consider ways to keep people out of prison, such as reclassifying some non-violent crimes.

But Representative Stanley Cox, chairman of the Missouri House Judicial Committee, says they have done that just last year.

The Republican from Sedalia says lawmakers took jail time off the books for several first offenses, like driving on a revoked license.

Cox says he’d consider reclassifying more offenses, but he’s not necessarily in favor of trying to limit the number of people who go to prison.

“I’m very cautious to push that too far because besides the violent criminal that everyone admits needs to go to prison,there are other nonviolent offenders that deserve to go to prison,” he said.

Cox points to the career thief.

Not surprisingly, Missouri’s prosecutors tend to agree.

Is it irresponsible to refuse cases?

St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCullough is the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

“I’m not the least bit interested in doing things in order to reduce the perceived burden on public defenders,” McCullough said. “That is of no interest at all to me.”

He says if public defenders have too many cases they could hand over ones involving minor crimes to private attorneys.

But McCullough is not convinced public defenders really are overworked.

“It just seems to me irresponsible for someone to say ‘I’m not taking this case judge because I’ve decided I’ve got too many cases,’” he said. 

"It just seems to me irresponsible for someone to say 'I'm not taking this case judge because I've decided I've got too many cases.'" - Robert McCullough

The verdict on whether public defenders truly can turn away clients still may be out.

While the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in public defenders’ favor this summer, it was a narrow decision that left future challenges to the practice almost guaranteed.

So caseloads for public defenders likely won’t be shrinking anytime soon.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter: @radioaltman