The Missouri Public Defender Commission plans a vote Friday on whether to refuse to accept any more cases.
The state system that provides legal defense for indigent clients says it is buried under cases. The average public defender in Missouri has 305 cases.
Former Missouri Bar President Doug Copeland of Kansas City has spent the last year and a half working on the problem and looking for solultions. He says the Public Defender system is "in crisis."
Copeland says Missouri is dead last in per-capita support among states that have statewide public defender systems. Among all states in which poor defendants get legal help, Missouri is 48th. Copeland says only Mississippi and Utah spend less per-capita on public defense.
He says the situation is as simple as workload-versus-resources and Missouri’s system is out of kilter. Copeland says the only solution is to provide more resources or to reduce workload.
Some of those looking at the problem suggest hiring private lawyers to handle many non-criminal cases as a way to reduce the workload. But Copeland thinks it would be cheaper just to hire more Public Defenders and more clerical staff because many Public Defnders are doing a lot of non-lawyer clerical things. He also says salaries need to be increased to end the 20 percent annual turnover among Missouri Public Defenders.
The legislature increased funding for the system by two-million dollars last year. Copeland says that was good but nowhere near adequate to solve the system’s problems.