A Bar Association Study of MO Public Defenders Stirs Talk of Privatizing the system;Local Representative Comments
An American Bar Association report called “The Missouri Project” confirms what many people in the court system have known for years, that the state’s public defenders have crushing caseloads and can’t dedicate the expected hours to some cases.
“Just out of Jasper County, ten to twenty cases in a day, not everyday,”
says District Public Defender Darren Wallace as he goes through applications from people needing attorneys. It’s one indicator of caseload jeopardizing quality.
“We’ve been arguing that for years,” says Wallace. ” That our caseloads are extreme and our clients suffer because of it. It’s only now that we have this data based independent assessment of our system that comes to the same conclusion.”
The data from the American Bar Association shows Missouri public defenders don’t spend the expected number of hours on cases to adequately defend clients.
Such as felonies where forty-seven hours work is expected they’re giving about nine hours. Or they’re forced to ask judges for extensions impacting clients.
Wallace says,”A longer wait could mean a longer wait in jail if they’re there waiting for their case. That’s where they’re going to be waiting.”
It’s simply an issue of manpower just 15 attorneys handle cases for Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties in the 29th and 40 th judicial circuits.
Representative Bill White from the 161 st district says,
” The bigger the caseload, the more chances are maybe somebody did make a mistake.” Many public defender cases get appealed.
Last year bills in the legislature posed the idea of privatizing parts of the public defender system.
Something similar was tried in Missouri in the 1980’s and failed.
Wallace says, ” Turned out it costs more to do it that way. And instead of having a central office that provides support training and oversight, you have someone in Jefferson City or somewhere having to just administer and make contracts with attorneys.”
That raises some concerns for Representative White who says,
“You want to make sure the contracts don’t go to peoples friends .”
While others still argue privatization is more cost effective.
White says it will help to have new data not just gut feelings. He says,
“My gut feeling is it costs a lot of money to go private because again if you’re aren’t having that zeal of doing this as a mission, but you’re out there punching a clock for paycheck. They make more money per hour by far than what public defenders do.”
The legislature this year passed $3.4 million for the public defenders office to contract out conflict cases to the private bar. Conflict cases can be where a public defender knows both clients or has some other reason to be disqualified and another public defender would have to handle the case driving from an outside county. Unfortunately, that money was vetoed by the governor. White says he will work to override that veto in the September session.