Public defenders could get a budget boost

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COLUMBIA - Only one state spends less per capita on its public defender system than Missouri: Mississippi.

That could change after representatives on the House Budget Committee earmarked an additional $6.8 million for Missouri's public defender system this week.

The state's public defender system appoints lawyers to defend individuals who can not obtain their own private counsel in criminal cases. The system supports citizens' right to counsel guaranteed by the Sixth Amendment in the Bill of Rights.

According to the MSPD's website, the system "provides high quality, zealous criminal representation in nearly 90,000 cases each year."  

But some question the quality and zeal provided by public defense lawyers with caseloads of 100 to 200 cases at any given time.

Steve Weinberg volunteers with the Midwest Innocence Project, an advocacy organization that seeks to overturn wrongful convictions—convictions that he says are the product of an overburdened, underpaid public defender workforce.

"People who are charged with crimes don't get the attention they deserve, not because public defenders are incompetent or uncaring, but because they're so overloaded with work," Weinberg said.  

In its 2016 annual report, the state's Public Defender Commission said it employed nearly 600 people. Of those 600 employees, 376 were attorneys.

A recent lawsuit filed against the state's public defender system said Missouri spends only $356 per case on indigent defense, and the state's public defenders spend fewer hours on nearly 97 percent of cases than what would be called for by American Bar Association recommendations.

According to the suit, the system would require $20 million and 300 more attorneys to provide even "minimally adequate" representation to defendants.

Even with a potential $6.8 million budget increase from the state legislature, that still leaves a $13.2 million gap.

Michael Barrett, director of the state public defender system, said a well-funded system could potentially save the state money.

"We help the state distinguish not just the guilty from the innocent, but the non-violent offenders from the violent offenders—the people who need to go to prison at considerable cost to taxpayers and those who don't," Barrett said.