Public defenders seek solution to caseload crisis

Missouri's public defenders system, with Columbia's located on Sixth and Walnut streets, has been ranked as one of the worst in the country. The typical Columbia public defender has an average of 350 cases annually.

When someone is accused of a crime and cannot afford a lawyer, the duty to provide legal representation falls upon the court-appointed public defenders. But this week, the Missouri Supreme Court is considering whether public defenders in Missouri can turn down certain clients. That question comes as a result of overwhelming caseloads for public defenders throughout the state.

A report by the Spangenberg Group at George Mason University states Missouri's case overload has pushed the state's criminal justice system to "the brink of collapse." Cat Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender System, said the report further expresses what those in the legal community already knew.

"It was a new study, but not particularly new news," Kelly said. "The system has been in a crisis for a number of years now and this simply confirmed that nothing has changed on that front."

The problem for public defenders boils down to too few lawyers to handle the amount of cases coming in. At public defender Tony Manansala's office in Columbia, each public defender is forced to handle more than 350 cases annually. At any one time, the average lawyer is handling 120 to 130 open cases.

"We're over double what we should be handling per attorney," Manansala said. "We cannot control our caseload at this point."

To lighten the number of cases being assigned to defenders, the state Senate tried to approve a solution earlier this year by passing a measure which would involved capping the number of cases taken on by public defenders and creating a waiting list for defendants. Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed that, but Kelly said the legislation would have been helpful.

"It was never a solution, it was a safety valve," Kelly said. "But there does have to be some sort of safety valve because our lawyers cannot provide effective representation for their clients in an unlimited number of cases."

In his veto letter, Nixon said shifting the burden from one sector of the criminal justice system to others was counterproductive.

One measure taken by public defenders has been to adopt rules that allow them to reject certain types of cases. These include cases involving probation and cases that were at one point being handled by private counsel.

Kelly said the new rules are a safety valve until a longer-term solution is reached. Prosecutors are arguing the rules allow the system to turn down clients who would otherwise be considered indignant and warrant public representation.

Both the public defenders and the state government agree a sheer lack of lawyers and support staff lies at the root of the problem. In his veto of the bill, Nixon acknowledged this void in the justice system.

"It is clear to me that the problem is one of resources, not only for the public defender system, but for all participants in the criminal justice system," Nixon said.

Kelly said logically speaking, there are only two options to fix the system.

"You either have to put in a whole lot more resources to hire a whole lot more lawyers or take a lot of cases away from us," Kelly said. "We're still hanging on by our fingernails, but that's about it."

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