Target 8: Public Defender Caseload May Prevent Meaningful Defense
BOONE COUNTY - Mountains of paperwork and files clutter the Boone County Public Defenders' office. So much paperwork, many public defenders have enough cases to open and close a case each day for an entire year - no days off, no vacations, no sick days.
"My attorneys are handling approximately at least 350 cases per year," said Tony Manansala, district defender for the Boone County Public Defenders. Manansala said 50 to 60 cases for each attorney would be ideal. In May of 2010, "we had a meeting with the judge, presiding judge, and other judges and the prosecutor and we have been working together to try to reduce our caseload." Since then, Boone County Public Defender caseload decreased about 15 percent, but that's still 120 percent above the American Bar Association recommendations. Jennifer Bukowsky left the Boone County Public Defenders in September 2010 to start her own practice, just about a block away. "No matter how hard I worked, no matter how many nights and weekends I worked, I couldn't do an adequate job on each case," said Bukowsky. She recalled days as a public defender where all she had time to do was run files to the courthouse. Bukowsky told KOMU of a phenomenon in the public defenders called "meet ‘em and plead ‘em" - clients may meet their attorney mere minutes before their court appearance.
She started at the Boone County Public Defenders in August of 2007 because she wanted to do something she really believed in. "Defending the indigent is the greatest way...well I see it as defending the Constitution for every American." But in end, the demanding caseload and poor hours became too much - "It's kinda like sprinting. You can't sprint forever." But despite all the demands on the Boone County Public Defenders, some clients, like Nici Jones, receive a good defense. A self-proclaimed news junkie, Jones was no stranger to the caseload crisis. "Well I had heard about them being overworked on cases so I had really low expectations," she told KOMU. Julia Bonham got assigned Nici Jones' case, and Jones was pleasantly surprised at the results Bonham got her.
Bonham was Jones' attorney for a span of over two years in two different cases. "She's obviously busy," said Jones, but "she does more than what your typical lawyer would do for you." Jones attributes this to Bonham's caring nature. Bonham joined the Boone County Public Defenders in March of2008 and closed over 1,125 cases since then. When KOMU asked Bonham why she thinks her job is important she said, "It's justice. Everybody needs justice. And people who can't afford attorneys shouldn't be cut out on a good defense. And they shouldn't be denied what any rich person would have in a good attorney." Still, some experts argue even those with a public defender are being denied those rights. Marty Robinson, director of the state public defender system, argues overworked public defenders are simply less able to provide their clients with a good defense. "If you give any lawyer, no matter how dedicated, no matter how skilled...if you give any lawyer too many cases they cannot provide meaningful representation in any case."
Robinson stressed the word meaningful - saying the right to a defense is no longer a meaningful right if people don't get a meaningful defense. But this is a problem that is not unique to Boone County or to the state of Missouri. David Carroll is the research director for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. "We went around the country and tallied up how much money is being spent on the right to counsel. Michigan, in all its trouble, is still 46th in the country. In indigent defense cost per capita spending, your state, Missouri, is 49th - significantly under Michigan and only above Mississippi." Carroll said he thinks this stems for a lack of understanding about what it's really like on the ground in courtrooms.