Mo. public defenders easing caseload limits

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- The Missouri public defender system is easing off caseload limits that have led to disagreements over whether state defense attorneys have the time and resources to represent some criminal defendants, the system's director said Tuesday.

The decision to allow greater flexibility for public defenders to take on additional clients, even as their caseload limits are near the maximum, could temporarily lessen tensions among some defenders, prosecutors, judges and attorneys. But public defender director Cat Kelly said concerns still exist that the government-funded attorneys could get stretched so thin that they can't adequately prepare for court cases.

Public defenders represent people charged with a crime who face potential jail time but who lack the money to hire an attorney. Kelly said public defender offices in 20 judicial circuits around the state had been under a limited ability to accept new clients because of caseload caps that project the amount of time various kinds of criminal cases will consume.

"The focus has become whether or not this particular formula is right, and that has become a distraction," Kelly said. Yet the Sixth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees "that people have a right to lawyers who actually have the time to be lawyers, and not just a body standing in a courtroom," she added.

Kelly said the Public Defender Commission voted Friday to give her the authority to withhold the implementation of the caseload limits, and she in turn has granted local offices flexibility not to strictly apply the cap.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said in a news release that it had notified the public defender system last week that it intended to file a lawsuit challenging defenders' ability to refuse additional criminal clients based on caseloads. But the prosecutors' group said it will hold off on the lawsuit because of the recent decision by the public defenders system to quit "arbitrarily closing its doors in violation of the constitutional duty to represent Missouri's poorest citizens."

The prosecutors' group said it wants a "smaller, streamlined" public defender system reserved for the most serious felonies such as murders and sexual offenses, with representation of lower-level felonies and misdemeanors contracted out to private attorneys.

A state audit released in October concluded the public defender system did not have enough information to accurately determine the staffing and resources needed to manage workloads. Among other things, Auditor Tom Schweich said the public defender system had been using a "bad baseline" to determine caseloads.

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