April 16, 2014

Public defenders warn of hiring freeze, furloughs

The state could be in danger of not being able to provide counsel for individuals accused of crimes in all cases; a right guaranteed to all individuals by the U.S. Constitution.

Governor Jay Nixon has withheld $1.4 million from the state’s public defender system. The system has sent a letter to the state’s judges telling them that the system will institute a hiring freeze November 1 and furloughs could be necessary in January if money is not released.

Division Director Joel Elmer says that means some vacancies will remain open indefinitely.

“It’s a very serious situation. It’s not good for our employees, it’s not good for our clients and it won’t be good for victims and local county jails that will have folks waiting in jail longer.”

Given enough delays some cases could be dismissed, but Elmer says he doesn’t think the situation will rise to that level.

Governor Nixon says withholds have been made across many agencies, and the public defender system will be treated like any other agency or department that has had money withheld. “We’re very early in the fiscal year. The fiscal year only starts July 1. It’s still October … As revenues become available we’ll look at releasing restrictions as the dollars become available.”

However Elmer says the system has been told to proceed as though it will not receive that money.

“We haven’t been told whether or when to expect that we’ll get (that money released) but to assume for planning purposes that we won’t have the money available.”

Elmer says he thinks the Governor is just trying to manage the state budget to the best of his ability. “We understand that. Unfortunately we don’t have fat in our budget and have to find some way to make the money up.”

The public defender system has said for years that it is overburdened with too many cases for its number of defenders. Elmer says this is just another hurdle.

“Matching our resources with our cases continues to be a struggle. We continue to need more resources which makes it all the more difficult to find any room to trim and to make up this withhold.”