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We Live Here: Untangling the public defender system

Steakpinball | Flickr

When we started We Live Here we promised to take you along on the reporting process with us. Recently, I’ve been looking into the public defender system in Missouri for one of our upcoming We Live Here podcasts.

Though I still have a lot more to learn, I've already noticed it's a system with a lot of nuance. I thought I’d share some of what I’ve learned so far about who does and doesn't qualify for a public defender and other details of how the system works:

  • The legal standards for state public defender systems stem from Missouri, sort of. A 1962 Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright, guarantees individuals a right to counsel, adding that that counsel must be provided by the state if a person is unable to afford it. While the case reached the Supreme Court by way of Florida, the Gideon of Gideon v. Wainwright was a Missouri native, Clarence Earl Gideon.

  • Who gets a public defender? It’s bit complicated. Public defenders are assigned to individuals whose charges come with the possibility of jail time and who cannot afford a lawyer. So, if we are talking jail time, then it’s mostly people charged with felonies and some misdemeanors. This means people who’ve committed misdemeanors in which there isn't a possibility of jail time don't get court-appointed counsel. Others who are excluded from having public defenders are those who don’t meet the financial qualifications as in, they're too rich. Here is how the 2014 State of Missouri Public Defender Fiscal Report defines it:
“The Public Defender Commission sets indigence guidelines, which are used to determine who is eligible for public defender services. Currently, those guidelines match the Federal Poverty Guidelines. Strictly applied that would mean that individuals making only $11,000 a year would not qualify for a public defender. According to recent reports, Missouri ranks 50th out of 50 states in income eligibility standards for public defender's services, leaving a wide gap of ineligible defendants who, in reality, still lack the means to retain private counsel in the market.”

  • Municipal courts are not part of the scene. By state statute public defenders are excluded from providing counsel in municipal courts. Cat Kelly, director of the Missouri Public Defender system, says that the recent outcry over the municipal court system has opened people up to the idea that maybe the system isn't fair and that people need representation. This, she says, also applies to state courts. “We do have public defenders  in the state court, but if your lawyer has so many cases they don't have time to do what needs to be done on the case, I mean you have a body standing next to you, but that’s about it.” This brings me to my next point …
  • Workloads are weighing down the system - Public defenders in Missouri and across the U.S. have complained of  heavy workloads for years.  The debate over workloads had played out through the court system and in the legislature for almost a decade. From the Missouri Public defender commissions 2014 Fiscal report

Credit Missouri Public Defender Annual Fiscal Report 2014

A study by the American Bar Association  on workload standards for public defenders showed that the actual hours public defenders were working on certain cases was well below the average amount needed to provide proper counsel. For example, in 2013, the standard number of suggested hours a defender should spend on a class A/B felony was 47.6 hours. In 2013, Missouri Public Defenders reported only working and average 8.7 hours on A/B felony cases. 

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