After spending nearly 15 years in courtrooms as the lead public defender in St. Louis, Mary Fox has a new job.
Last month, she became head of Missouri’s public defender system, overseeing and advocating for nearly 400 lawyers who represent indigent individuals at their trials and during the appeals process.
Fox, a native of University City, took a bit of a roundabout route to Columbia, where the public defender system is headquartered. After getting her law degree from St. Louis University in 1981, she spent time as a public defender in both St. Louis and St. Louis County.
Between 1987 and being named St. Louis’ district defender in 2007, Fox helped the St. Louis police department handle internal affairs issues, and served part time as the traffic commissioner in St. Louis County, overseeing traffic court cases. She also practiced family and juvenile law.
She spoke with St. Louis Public Radio's Rachel Lippmann.
Rachel Lippmann: You took over the top job after 13 years in St. Louis, which is one of the busiest circuits. How did that workload help with the transition to the new job?
Mary Fox: It’s been very informative. As a result of seeing the day-to-day operation of a trial office, I was able to identify ways to improve our system, ways to make life better for clients and for our attorneys, and I will hopefully be able to bring that to the entire system.
Lippmann: What’s been the biggest adjustment?
Fox: My day-to-day life prior to this job was being in a courthouse and in courtrooms every day, whether it was for my case or simply to talk to the judges or observe attorneys. So being out of the courtroom is probably the biggest adjustment.
Lippmann: What is the number-one issue facing the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office?
Fox: Caseload. We have too many cases for the number of attorneys that we have.
Lippmann: This is an ongoing issue. What will it take to solve it?
Fox: The easy solution is to reduce the cases. The other easy solution is to provide more resources, or a combination of the two.
Lippmann: On the budget side first — how do you get lawmakers to listen and to give you the additional funding?
Fox: I’m more optimistic than you are. I think the legislators are listening. They have asked good questions, they want to know how we are going to spend the money. I think they are more than happy to provide the resources, if they can figure out where to take those resources from to give them to us.
So, I think everyone is listening. The question is, can we come up with a solution that keeps everyone happy and, most importantly, ensures that our clients are provided with the attorneys that they are entitled to?
Lippmann: When you say lawmakers are listening — does that feel different to you?
Fox: I have not been the person talking to the lawmakers before, so I can’t really speak to prior actions. But I think you have to take a look at what has happened in the past few years to see that they are listening.
This year, we started a children’s defense team, with specialized attorneys to handle juvenile cases. That’s a result of the lawmakers giving us the funding. In prior years, lawmakers gave us funding so that we could contract out cases where an attorney had a conflict, rather than having to handle them in office. Again, that indicated that lawmakers were listening. And the lawmakers also authorized raises for our attorneys, which helps with retention and with being able to handle additional cases.
The issue is, it is a significant amount of money that is necessary to provide the effective assistance of counsel that is required under the Constitution, and I think lawmakers are looking to see where they can get that money to make certain that we have fulfilled our obligation.
Fox: I have heard the complaint that the public defender system needs to be more efficient. It has been eye-opening for me to be at the headquarters building where what I see is five attorneys supervising almost 400 attorneys. That’s an efficient operation.
We handle cases in-system for $475 per case in our trial office. That is an efficient system.
It is a very well-run state office, so that is not the issue. The issue is, over the years, caseloads increased, and staffing did not increase enough to keep up.
Lippmann: If lawmakers stick to the $53 million budget recommended by Gov. Mike Parson for the upcoming fiscal year, how far away from full funding are you?
Fox: If you use the Rubin-Brown study, which was authorized by the American Bar Association to determine what would be reasonable caseloads for the office, we are approximately 300 attorneys short of what we need. So that is a significant amount of money.
For this year [fiscal year 2021], on top of our core budget, we asked for an additional $8 million, for a total request of $60 million. We use those monies to address the cases that are currently on wait lists, and to create another appellate office in southwest Missouri. We only asked for six additional attorneys. That’s a small number compared to what we need, but every additional attorney would help.
We also need the basics that any office needs. We need money to improve our IT equipment. If we are going to remain an efficient office, we have to have IT equipment that works.
Lippmann: With what the governor has suggested in his recommendation, will you be able to get any of the things you just outlined?
Fox: I think the first group that we need to address, and have already addressed, is the budget committees. We have spoken with the House committee, and will speak to the Senate budget committee in a few weeks. All of the legislators we have spoken to thus far have been willing to listen and work with us, and I’m certain that if they make a recommendation, the governor would authorize it.
Lippmann: The second part of reducing caseloads is reducing the need for public defenders by charging fewer people with serious crimes. Are you beginning to see that happen?
Fox: Yes. In the St. Louis office, which I’m most familiar with, cases decreased steadily in the 13 years that I was there, and it’s decreased at about the same rate under both Jennifer Joyce and Kim Gardner.
Wesley Bell, I think, is moving in the same direction [in St. Louis County]. He’s decided that he’s not going to prosecute child support cases criminally, and instead allow the civil system to handle them. That’s a significant number of cases in St. Louis County.
Lippmann: Do you expect the trend to spread?
Fox: There has to be some benefit shown for the risk decisions that the prosecutors are taking. If they can show that by not prosecuting certain cases, by using diversion courts, or even restorative justice, that the community remains safe, then yes, I think other prosecutors would be willing to join that movement and look at other ways they can handle crime in their community.
Lippmann: Come Jan. 10, 2021, which will be your first anniversary as the director of the system, what will success look like to you?
Fox: Having more staff in place. If we can get enough folks in there so that we’re not putting cases on wait lists, then I think it will help the court system move more efficiently and expeditiously. And it will allow folks to have the speedy trial rights they are entitled to.
Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann
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