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Mo. House Committee Proposes Reductions In Public Defenders

The Missouri Supreme Court will hear oral arguments Tuesday, December 13, 2011 over whether public defender offices can turn away cases.

The chair of Missouri's House Judiciary Committee is proposing reductions in the state's public defender system.

Republican State Representative Stanley Cox of Sedalia says public defenders would still handle the most serious cases for indigent defendants, but the more minor cases would be bid out to private attorneys.

Cox says this would address the caseload issues public defenders have long complained about.

"This is just a way of dealing with it, some sort of hybrid, that at least other states have done similar things, that I think has the perspective of delivering services a bit more cost-effective," explained Cox.

Cox said he's not sure exactly how many public defenders would be out.

Missouri Public Defender Director Cat Kelley says she's not opposed to sharing cases with private attorneys, but she says it still comes down to resources.

"Just moving the problem, splitting it in half, and leaving both the contracting and the full-time public defenders both under-resourced isn't going to solve anything," Kelley argues. "It's probably just going to make the landscape messier and still not provide effective counsel."

Public defenders had begun refusing cases earlier this fall when they reached a limit based on their own protocol. Kelley says they've suspended that practice until they can better track how long they spend on each case.

Maria is the newscast, business and education editor for St. Louis Public Radio.

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