Public defenders ease off caseload limits, still worried about fairness

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

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 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.

Attempts to reach public defender Christopher Davis, who manages the district 32 office in Jackson, were unsuccessful late Tuesday.

Scott County Prosecuting Attorney Paul Boyd said prosecutors, who have to carry the burden of proof, have the tougher go of it. His office, for example, prosecuted 1,800 cases last year with three full-time and one part-time prosecutor. So, when he heard that the public defender's system wanted to push each of its lawyers caseload to about 200, he was amused.

"I thought it would be real sweet if we could get that in my office," Boyd said.

Also, Boyd said, prosecutors are the only cog in the judicial wheel that is paid out of county budgets. Public defenders, judges and clerks are paid from state coffers. The financial situation in most Missouri counties, he said, isn't much better than at the state level.

"So we're going to have to just provide the best service we can with the resources we have -- just like we've always done," Boyd said.

Boyd's colleagues at the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys agree. The association issued 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.

Staff writer Scott Moyers contributed to this report.

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