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Government, Politics & Issues

St. Louis County Set To Start Client Waitlist For Public Defenders

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County on Thursday will become the 30th county in Missouri to have a waitlist for defendants who need public defenders.

Some criminal defendants in St. Louis County who cannot afford an attorney may face more delays in getting one.

The court will start a waitlist for public defenders Thursday in an effort to control the number of cases the attorneys are handling at one time. An October 2019 review found that most of the county’s 25 public defenders were responsible for so many cases they were potentially violating the civil rights of their clients.

“The court finds that at present, the proposed waitlist can be implemented and managed without unduly endangering community safety or causing undue disruption to the effective administration of justice in St. Louis County,” Judge Gloria Reno wrote in an order establishing the list. 

Large workloads for public defenders have been a problem across Missouri for years. State lawmakers in 2013 authorized the use of waitlists to control the number of cases those attorneys are handling at one time. There are already more than 5,000 Missouri defendants on waitlists in 20 judicial circuits covering 29 counties.

While waitlists may help reduce public defender workloads, they can cause other constitutional issues for people who need an attorney, said David Carroll, the executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center in Boston.

“There’s a lot of problems with providing attorneys early enough in the case to be effective,” he said. “When you put off a case and not provide counsel until some date off in the future, witnesses become harder to track down, memories fade, crime scenes change. There’s all sorts of problems that become compounded by pushing that off.”

In St. Louis County, the waitlist is for defendants who are charged with lower-level felonies like theft or passing a bad check, and who are not being held in jail before trial. The court is also looking to boost the number of private attorneys who could take cases on the waitlist.

“That can be a marvelous thing, and has been in, particularly in Massachusetts,” said Stephen Hanlon, the general counsel for the National Association of Public Defense and a professor at St. Louis University Law School. “As long as the members of the private bar are adequately paid for their time and they are adequately trained and they are adequately supervised and the training and the supervision is done by an independent agency.”

Waitlists and more private attorneys are just temporary solutions, Hanlon said. Additional funding – or reducing the number of people charged with crimes – are the only permanent fixes. 

The St. Louis County waitlist was first proposed by Reno’s predecessor as presiding judge, Douglas Beach, in 2018. But then-St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch challenged Beach’s authority to order changes. Wesley Bell, the current prosecutor, dropped that challenge, which allows the waitlist to take effect.

The ACLU of Missouri filed suit in federal court in 2017, alleging that Missouri’s chronic underfunding of public defense violates the rights of defendants who cannot afford other attorneys. A settlement reached earlier this year is awaiting a judge’s approval.

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