Missouri needs 300 more public defenders

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JEFFERSON CITY - The Public Defenders Office is requesting increased funding for to help pay for more public defenders.

The office went before the House Budget Committee Thursday. Comptroller Kathy Lear said the office is requesting an increase of roughly $30 million. Nearly all of that would go to funding additional attorneys.

The director of the Public Defenders Office, Michael Barrett, said “We’ve had vacancies open for six months or for a year in many jurisdictions in this state.” 

According to the American Bar Association, Missouri currently needs about 300 more public defenders to, “provide competent representation.”

In Boone County, Barrett said, the office has more than 100,000 cases per year. That means the attorneys don't have the time needed to spend with each individual case.

The bar association said public defenders in Missouri should be spending an average of 47 hours per case, but instead can only spend nine.

“They just don't have the time." Barrett said.

Currently Missouri ranks 49th in pay for its public defenders, who are paid between $39,000-$63,000 per year. That's roughly $355 dollars per case. A lawyer in a private firm could expect to make that much money in a single hour.

Barrett said the requested increase in funding would raise the low end of salaries by $7,000. He said that would make it possible to attract more lawyers, who can leave college with an average of 100,000-200,000 of student debt.

“Many of them want to work for the system, many people want to protect people's rights, they just can’t afford to,” he said.

Without the additional funding, lawyers are becoming increasingly either unable or unwilling to become public defenders, Barrett said, and those who are willing to take the low-paying jobs aren't always the most best fit.

“The only applicant for one of our positions was a licensed attorney in Illinois who’s got a DWI and doesn’t have the ability to drive,” Barrett said. “These are the kinds of preposterous discussions we’re having to put people in offices.”

Barrett said the situation is leading to increased waiting times for inmates and those inmates are often getting short-changed because the public defenders can't adequately represent them.

“I think the state, if it has an interest in the criminal justice system being relied upon before we take away someone’s liberties, we're going to have to do a better job,” Barrett said.