Missouri’s Public Defender System: A View from the Prosecution Side of the Courtroom

LBN has followed the issue of funding for public defenders (see this earlier report on LBN has followed the issue of funding for public defenders (see this earlier report on Missouri’s public defender system.) There has been a suggestion of a lawsuit by the ACLU against the public defender system on the ground that it is not providing the representation required by the Sixth Amendment. That view is not shared by everyone. Eric Zahnd, Platte County, Missouri Prosecuting Attorney, discusses the issues in this report.

Eric Zahnd

Eric Zahnd

Zahnd is hopeful that an ACLU lawsuit will never materialize. In 2013, the Missouri General Assembly enacted a law providing a safety valve that would allow a defender who believed that he or she had an overly large caseload to approach a circuit judge and request to be removed from some cases. Zahnd says he knows of no instance where that request has been made. 

Zahnd points out that everyone in the criminal justice system—courts, police officers, prosecutors, and defenders—are facing fund constraints. “Everybody is being asked to do more with less.” At the same time, advances in technology have enabled lawyers to be more efficient and to accomplish tasks in less time than in years past. Zahnd adds that comparisons of prosecutor and defender caseloads “show that individual prosecutors routinely handle two to three times more cases than the public defenders,” not even counting cases reviewed by prosecutors where no prosecution occurs.

Zahnd says he has some doubts about the ABA Missouri Project and the way it was conducted. Zahnd suggests that an improvement to the system that has been discussed would a hybrid system where the lawyers in the public defender system would be reserved for serious felonies and that private attorneys would be hired by contract to handle misdemeanors and low-level felonies. Zahnd points out that some states have systems like that, and such a system could work in Missouri.

As to improvements in the criminal justice system, Zahnd notes that Missouri has enacted a complete revision to its criminal code that will take effect in 2017. One objective of the new code was to eliminate jail time for certain misdemeanors. That would “remove public defenders from thousands and thousands of cases.” The revision should have a very positive effect on public defender caseloads.

Eric Zahnd is the Platte County, Missouri Prosecuting Attorney. He has the longest tenure of any elected prosecutor currently serving the Kansas City metro area .The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.