Missouri Public Defenders Refuse New Clients

By: Gerri L. Elder

In Missouri, people who are accused of crimes may now have to deal with an additional problem – the lack of a criminal defense attorney.

In July, the Missouri Public Defender Commission approved a policy that allows public defenders to refuse any new cases if they have exceeded maximum caseload capacity for three months in a row.

On October 1, public defender offices in Springfield, Ava, Jefferson City and Columbia started opting out of new cases while they clear their enormous backlogs, according to the Associated Press.

Legal Services May Provide Lawyers for Some

While some private lawyers may choose to take on some pro bono cases, the Missouri Bar has reported that only about 5 percent of lawyers have signed up to accept legal services clients through the bar’s Pro Bono Program. However, many other lawyers in the state may take on cases for free or at reduced rates outside of the formal program.

Missouri’s Legal Services programs provide legal representation to individuals and families who meet minimum income requirements, but who cannot afford a lawyer on their own.

No Lawyers for Some Criminal Defendants

With the lack of available public defenders, some people will be forced to face criminal charges in court without a lawyer.

First on the chopping block will be criminal cases that involve forgery, fraudulent checks or traffic offenses. In these types of cases, access to a criminal defense lawyer isn’t a constitutional right.

Many people accused of probation violations will also likely be deprived of a defense lawyer. Probation violation cases often make up a third of the public defenders’ workload.

While having more criminal defendants go without public defenders may help lighten the load, it may also slow down the court process as more people attempt to navigate the court systems on their own. As a result, the courts may become more clogged, and not allow for backlogs to be resolved after all.

Overloaded Public Defenders

There are 36 public defender offices in Missouri. Each of these offices has more cases than its lawyers can handle. The offices face additional challenges when lawyers burn out or leave in favor of higher paying jobs.

In Springfield, the public defender office with 19 lawyers reportedly handled 3,487 cases during the fiscal year that ended in June. Each lawyer generally has 150 open cases at a time and the office is currently operating at more than 156 percent capacity.

The public defender system in Missouri has been in place for 36 years to provide representation for criminal defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers. However, for eight years now, the system has not had any meaningful increase in staffing or budget and has reached its breaking point.

The virtual collapse of the Missouri Public Defender System is not a surprise and was predicted in a 2005 study by a Massachusetts consultant.

Rod Hackathorn, the top public defender in Springfield, says that some clients are not receiving enough time with their lawyers because of the overburdened system.

Hackathorn says that defendants charged with serious felonies are receiving very good representation by public defenders. However, those charged with misdemeanors and less serious felonies often do not get enough face time with their lawyers to be adequately represented.

According to the guidelines, public defenders should meet with their jailed clients within seven days of receiving their case files. They should meet with their clients once per month after the initial meeting. Hackathorn says that this is not reality and that the guidelines have become a goal.

Inadequate or No Legal Representation

Astonishingly, some clients do not even get the opportunity to meet with their lawyers at all until they arrive in court. In these cases, the public defenders cannot adequately represent the defendants. Often, due to a lack of time and resources, public defenders do not even have a grasp of what evidence the state may have against their clients.

Public defenders will likely no longer be assigned to cases where prosecutors are more concerned with extracting restitution from defendants than having them serve jail time. If the defendants in these cases seem to be headed for a jail sentence, the cases will be put on hold in order to give them an opportunity to correct the situation. If restitution is not made, public defenders will be brought in as a last resort.

With the overloaded public defender system in Missouri, it is difficult to determine which is the lesser of two evils – an inadequate criminal defense or no legal representation at all. Unless and until the system in Missouri is revamped and injected with some cash, it seems to be a coin toss for criminal defendants who cannot afford a lawyer.