Missouri’s Public Defender System Struggles with Funding Issues, Caseloads and Politics

Missouri’s public defender system is high on the list of underfunded and understaffed agencies. The situation in Missouri is more than mere opinion; an ABA study, The Missouri Project, documented that insufficient staff in the public defender’s office resulted in too little time being available to give cases the work they needed. In this report, Michael Barrett explains the problems his office is facing.

Michael Barrett

Michael Barrett

Barrett explains that the problems his agency faces are not new. Questions about how many hours lawyers should devote to different types of cases. The public defender’s office had struggled with caseload issues since the 1970s. The agency was basing its caseload assignments on numbers suggested by a group of lawyers. The agency’s funding requests were based on these recommendations.

The Missouri State Auditor at one point objected that the agency’s requests were not based on hard data. In order to meet the objection, the accounting firm of Rubin Brown was hired to study the matter. The firm gathered data from the defender’s office and juxtaposed those numbers against hours spent by private attorneys handling the same kind of cases. Barrett reports on the study’s conclusion: Missouri’s public defenders were not spending an adequate amount of time on its caseload and needed 291 more lawyers to do the job properly.

The Missouri Public Defender System took the data to the Missouri General Assembly, and the legislators responded. The legislature offered to provide $3.47 million to deal with conflicts. Barrett says that his agency is very efficient. Last year, the agency handled 74,000 cases and resolved the mix of misdemeanors and felonies for an average cost of $345 per case. However, when lawyers are forced to leave one county and go to another to represent clients, it cuts into efficiency. The $3.47 million would be used to hire private lawyers to avoid the conflicts. However, the governor vetoed the appropriation. When his veto was overridden by the legislature, he used his executive authority to withhold the money.

Barrett said that his agency was hoping to get the money in subsequent years, as appropriations like this in one year become part of an agency’s core budget in subsequent years. However, the governor’s budget for the following year excluded the $3.47 million. The bottom line, says Barrett, is that his agency has still received no benefits from the Rubin Brown study.

Adding more lawyers to county defender staffs is not an option, Barrett says, pointing out the Missouri is in 49th place among the 50 states in terms of funding received for public defender services. Missouri defender salaries are among the lowest in the country. And low salaries have caused a high turnover rate among defenders. Unless the legislature provides more full-time equivalents (FTEs), the agency can’t hire more lawyers.

In Missouri, acquiring public defender services can be a challenge for defendants of limited means. Theoretically, Barrett says, someone could be on food stamps and still not be eligible for public defender services. Missouri uses the federal poverty guidelines, and a defendant has to be at 100% of the guidelines to be eligible for free representation. Barrett says that, when a defendant falls through the cracks because of inability to pay for a lawyer, a court will usually appoint a public defender to provide representation.

Barrett suggests that there are two potential remedies to the problem: One possibility is that the legislature provides the needed funding. Another possibility would be a lawsuit by the ACLU against the defender system on the basis that it is not meeting its obligation to provide Sixth Amendment representation.

Michael Barrett is state director of the Missouri Public Defender System. Over his career, he has worked with the FBI and the Department of Defense. He also worked for the New York Commission on Sentencing Reform. He also worked for Missouri Governor Jay Nixon as Deputy General Counsel. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.