TARGET 8: Hundreds wait in jail as public defenders struggle with caseloads
JEFFERSON CITY - Many people accused of crimes are languishing in county jails as the Missouri State Public Defender System struggles to get through cases.
Missouri has 376 public defenders who take on more than 85,000 cases a year. They represent suspects who cannot afford a private attorney or to pay bond.
Justin Carver serves Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties. He’s been in the public defender's office for 15 years and said the system “has always been bad, it’s just degrees of bad.”
Carver has filed nearly 200 motions this year to decline or withdraw from the influx of cases to his staff of attorneys, but circuit judges have been denying his requests.
Missouri ranks 49th in funding for state public defenders, according to the ACLU. The system receives less than half of one percent of appropriations compared to all other state departments.
Despite working overtime and on the weekends, Carver said, “I literally need twice the number of lawyers I’ve got. I mean, I can’t make twice the number of hours in the day."
Just this year, his office had nearly 200 applicants for public defender services. At one time, Carver had 268 open cases assigned to him at once.
To ease the burden, private attorneys are required at times to take on public cases without compensation. Jefferson City lawyer Scott Evans is one of many lawyers in the area asked to take on cases for free. He said this system isn't a long-term fix.
"I don't see appointing private counsel as the solution because it's just shifting the liability from the public defender's office to the private bar," he said.
While Carver balances his time sifting through casework, responding to clients and preparing legal work, many of his clients remain in county jail.
“There are people stuck in jail right now without a lawyer. If I were their father, brother, mother, I would be furious because it’s horribly unfair. The state is supposed to provide a lawyer to these people and the state is completely falling down on its responsibility,” he said.
The ACLU is currently suing the Missouri State Public Defender System. Its lead plaintiff, who it claims had a "winnable case," spent 42 days in jail before meeting with his public defender.
The American Bar Association requires “lawyers provide competent representation” and “control workload so each matter can be handled competently.” However, Carver’s requests to decline or withdraw from cases has added to the backlog of casework.
Both public and private attorneys are at risk of disciplinary action or having their bar license revoked for not providing enough attention to each case.
“The legal standard for competence means, not just the knowledge and skill, but also includes the preparation and right now, I don’t have any time to prepare my cases,” he said.
Carver also cited retention issues with employees who burn out in the public defender system.
Carver said the enormous backlog of work raises ethical questions because clients are not getting a fair and speedy trial.
"The speedy trial right exists on paper, it's not being enforced by the courts," he said.
A report from Rubin Brown, an independent consultant, shows public defenders in Missouri aren't giving enough time to ethically represent clients. In their 2014 study called The Missouri Project, it found defenders were spending less than half the time required on some cases.
Based on statistical averages, sex felony cases should take 63 hours of time to complete, but public defenders were dedicating only 25 hours of their time, the report found.
Another independent consultant, The Spangenberg Group, concluded "for close to a decade the MSPD has received no substantial increase in appropriations" and "each day in Missouri, the state places the lives of poor citizens into the hands of attorneys who are underpaid, overworked, and badly supervised."
This fall, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled public defenders hoping to ease their caseloads must get the permission of circuit judges in order to lessen the amount of assignments.
In 2013, legislation voided the Public Defender Commission's excessive caseload rule. The new procedure requires judicial approval for public defenders to turn away an excess of cases.