A justice crisis

Sunday, February 26, 2006

You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford one, an attorney will be appointed for you.

Eventually.

Lawyers in the Missouri State Public Defender's Program, who defend clients who cannot afford representation, are facing increased workloads, high turnover rates and low salaries.

Officials fear that stress from such a workload could spill over and affect the public defenders' clients, resulting in a violation of the right to adequate counsel.

In October 2005, criminal justice research and consulting firm The Spangenberg Group provided an assessment of the Missouri's public defender system. The report stated that the system was struggling to survive and on the verge of collapse, with "no relief in sight."

Formed in 1985, The Spangenberg Group has conducted studies of indigent defense systems in more than 25 states, and has worked with some jurisdictions in evaluating public defender systems.

"We believe there is an extremely high risk that public defender attorneys can no longer assure that their indigent clients will be provided adequate and meaningful representation at this time. In our view, the crisis is no longer looming; it exists right now," the report read.

In the last five years, the caseload has increased by 12,000 statewide to 88,000 cases. On average, each of the 360 lawyers in the state's public defender's office has about 298 cases a year, up from a recommended 235.

To make matters worse, there has been no additional funding in the same period for the program, the only statewide public defender program to have failed to do so, the Spangenberg report stated.

With a cumulative turnover rate of 100 percent in just five years, lawyers with less experience are forced to take up cases that could be too advanced for them to handle.

That, experts say, could result in disaster.

"We're a lawsuit waiting to happen," said Cathy Kelly, director of training and communications for state public defender's office.

In the Cape Girardeau area, the number of cases appointed to the public defender's office has increased steadily each year since 1995 -- from 1,987 cases to 2,562 cases in 2005. There are more jury trials than ever, forcing public lawyers to work longer, harder hours for the same pay.

"The caseload is incredible," said district defender Chris Davis.

Davis heads the public defender's office for judicial districts 32 and 33, which includes Cape Girardeau, Perry, Bollinger, Scott and Mississippi counties. His office has 10 assistant public defenders who represent indigent defendants in those five counties.

"A lawyer has a duty to be ethical and not take on more cases than they can handle," he said. "We don't have the right to refuse."

Davis stressed public defenders are not in the business for money but said cash does play a role in retention rates.

Lawyers fresh out of law school after passing the bar exam get paid $33,792 a year. Through the years, the public defender may receive three promotions and higher salaries, the highest being about $52,000 a year.

Davis said most promotions are achieved every year and a half, with a rookie public defender obtaining the highest level after about five years.

But as there has not been any additional funding for the program in the last five years, salaries are likely to remain the same.

"Once you've reached the highest level ... at this point, there's no additional funding for those people to get," Davis said.

When faced with the reality of higher pay from the St. Louis area and private law firms, the public defender's office in Jackson simply cannot compete.

"Most people leave because of money, not job satisfaction," Davis said. "With more money, we can be competitive, keeping people longer."

With the vast majority of public defenders fresh out of law school, many cannot afford to stay in the office long. State law schools can cost a future lawyer between $50,000 and $60,000, and private schools can be in the six figures.

To help combat skyrocketing tuition costs, many lawyers determined to stay with the public defender's office are forced to take up part-time jobs to subsidize their income.

"It's really sad," Kelly said of the situation. As state law prohibits public defenders from working on private cases, many seeking second jobs take up bartending, truck driving or pizza delivery.

Once, a lawyer met with a client during the day and later that night delivered him a pizza, Kelly said.

"Needless to say, it doesn't do much for the attorney-client relationship," she said.

Although none of the public attorneys in Davis' districts has a second job, 24 have left the office in the last 10 years.

New public defenders are asked to give a commitment of two years, something that is not a contractual obligation, Davis said. At least three lawyers have failed to live up to that commitment.

And because of their workload, public attorneys quickly gain experience sought by private firms.

"Most public defenders have more trials under their belt in five years than civil attorneys have in 20 years," Kelly said.

The Public Defender's Office represents about 80 to 85 percent of criminal cases. If something is not done soon, officials said, the judicial process down could be slowed down.

"It's going to put the whole criminal justice system in gridlock," Davis said.

Unfortunately, the system will likely not slow down enough for lawyers in the Public Defender's Office to catch their collective breath.

As judges are ordered under law to keep cases moving, they cannot wait forever for public defenders to get up to speed, according to Kelly.

"Cases are going to trial when it hasn't been properly prepared, or cases are being pled out when it hasn't been prepared," she said. "The risk of innocent people being convicted is going up."

kmorrison@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127

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