Southwest Mo. public defender office turns away new clients

Friday, July 23, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Criminal defendants in southwest Missouri will not be eligible for a state public defender until next month because of high caseloads and overworked lawyers.

The state public defender system said Thursday that its Springfield office would not accept new cases until August because the 20 lawyers there cannot handle any more defendants. The public defender system anticipates that it will only be able to take new cases for the first couple of weeks of each month.

Cat Kelly, a state public defender deputy director, said the courts could delay criminal cases until an attorney can be assigned, but that would make the problem progressively worse and force the office to stop taking new cases earlier each month. She said the Springfield office was the first to close its doors to new cases because it already had taken numerous steps to reduce caseload.

"We're all in uncharted water here," Kelly said. "We'll have to play it by ear."

She said it could mean people will spend more time in jail while waiting to be assigned a public defender, but it is possible that the courts could use other methods to resolve the cases.

The Springfield office handles criminal cases in Greene, Christian and Taney counties. But the public defender system has warned courts about high caseloads in offices for another roughly 40 counties, including St. Louis, Clay, Platte, Jefferson, Boone and Cole counties.

Problems with Missouri's public defender system are not new. A special legislative committee studied the issue in 2006, and lawmakers in 2009 approved a bill to let the Public Defender Commission set up maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists to be assigned a lawyer. The bill also would have allowed trials to proceed for misdemeanor offenses without a public defender if prosecutors did not pursue any jail time.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it could have shifted more work to courts and prosecutors and burdened defendants and crime victims.

A 2009 study by the Spangenberg Group and the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Missouri's public defender system has "an overwhelming caseload crisis" that has pushed the criminal justice system "to the brink of collapse."

The state Supreme Court last year also rejected rules developed by the Public Defender Commission to allow overloaded offices to turn down some poor defendants.

The high court suggested that public defenders work with prosecutors and judges to develop informal methods to relieve pressure on caseloads. Those methods could include limiting cases in which prosecutors will seek jail time and determining types of cases for private attorneys to be appointed, the court said.

If those methods fail, the Supreme Court said local public defender offices could refuse to take any new clients.

Attorneys must be provided to Missourians who are accused of a crime that carries a possible jail or prison sentence and who cannot afford to pay a private lawyer.

Kelly said that through June 2009, Missouri would have needed to more than double the number of defense lawyers to keep the attorneys within maximum caseload standards set by the American Bar Association and the U.S. Department of Justice.

By exceeding the caseload standards, clients cannot be adequately defended and public defenders risk malpractice lawsuits and losing their law license.

"We have to make the decision that the Constitution is not a Hollywood script. It actually is a requirement that counsel be appointed," she said.

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