"This isn't justice:" Public defender on state of the department
JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri public defenders are experiencing a crisis according to their director, Michael Barrett. He said too many cases and not enough defenders has put a strain on the department.
Walter Stokely is a public defender in Cole County, and he agrees that the large amount of work poses a challenge to public defenders.
"Every single minute of every single day that I am at work, I feel overwhelmed by the case load," Stokely said.
He said his job requires him to visit with clients either in his office or in the county jails or state prisons. He also has to work through cases at the courthouse, attend alternative treatment programs with clients, do legal research and prepare for hearings and trials.
Stokely said he has twice had to fulfill all of those jobs for 200 cases at one time, something he said is a problem when it comes to adequate representation.
"It's way more than an attorney doing a competent, diligent job should be asked to handle," Stokely said. "Each case you get is a new person to know. It's a new set of facts to acquaint yourself with, and depending on how much experience you've had with that particular charge, it may be a whole new area of law to get to know."
A 2014 study of the Missouri State Public Defender System said that in class A and B felony cases, including murder, child rape, kidnapping and manslaughter, public defenders should spend 38.9 hours on each case, but in Missouri, they spend only 8.7 hours on each case.
In the study, the National Center for State Courts said Missouri's public defenders' protocol "suffers significantly" from its failure to depart from guidelines set by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals established in 1973. The standards recommended public defenders take on the maximum number of cases. Stokely said the large case load can harm the representation of his clients.
"If you're asking me to adequately defend somebody who's facing 30 years in prison - which is a life sentence in Missouri - just a few hours to devote to that case is not going to be enough to do a good job for that person," Stokely said.
The department is also experiencing a high turnover rate of attorneys due to a lack of funding and an abundance of case work.
Kim Kollmeyer worked as a public defender for more than three years before moving to private practice last October. She said she became a public defender to help people, but it wasn't long before the load took a toll on her work.
"It's not appropriate when you have people saying 'help me,' and you just don't have the time or energy to fight those battles," Kollmeyer said, "And those battles are deserving."
Kollmeyer also said the case load caused her to choose which cases to prioritize.
"I found myself in a position where there were too many battles, and I was having to select which angle I wanted to approach, which angle I wanted to fight," Kollmeyer said. "They were all deserving battles, but I was not in a position to take every element of the fight all at once."
Kollmeyer and Stokely both said public defenders give as much effort as they can to all of their cases. Kollmeyer said licenses for all attorneys require them to take as many cases as they can and turn down the ones they don't have time for; public defenders, however, are required to take every case that comes their way.
"They have so many cases going on at any given time that they simply don't have as much time to devote to a case as they'd like to," Kollmeyer said. "They're doing the best they can in very bad circumstances."
Stokely said a solution to the public defenders' crisis is in the hands of lawmakers. He said the legislature could allocate more money to the department so it can hire more attorneys. He said more attorneys would mean spreading the case load out to more people, which would ultimately mean better representation. Stokely said adequate representation of the public is at the core of the crisis.
"It's the Capitol's job to see that the constitutional rights of Missourians are upheld," Stokely said. "They all took an oath to uphold the United States Constitution and the Missouri Constitution, and assistance of counsel is a guaranteed right under both of those documents."
Kollmeyer said the legislature has increased funding for multiple aspects of law enforcement, and an increase in law enforcement quality means more cases coming to public defenders' desks, but there aren't any more attorneys to tackle the growing neeed.
"This isn't justice," Stokely said. "The Constitution guarantees a right to an attorney, and right now, my clients have part of an attorney because my attention is divided. So we are not fulfilling our constitutional obligation. We need more attorneys."