The people of Missouri have the nation’s worst record at protecting one of our basic constitutional rights. Some people might lose those rights because of it.
You’ve heard the words that are part of the cliché in the cop shows–you have the right to an attorney and if you cannot afford one, one will be appointed for you. But that appointment might not be made in Missouri. The state public defender system is so overloaded with cases that its lawyers are being allowed to refuse to accept appointments to defend indigent people charged with crimes. The Public Defender Commission’s rule allowing its lawyers to reject service went into effect at the start of this month.
The head of the state public defender office has only 360 lawyers for cases in all 114 counties,the city of St. Louis and in all of the appeals courts. Last year they handled almost 90-thousand cases.State public defender Marty Robinson says the program has gone eight years without any significant increase in funding and no increases in staff. He says, "The right to counsel is the right to MEANINGFUL counsel. If the public defender is so overworked they cannot provide a meaningful defense in each and every case, then we’re fooling ourselves if we think we’re complying with our constitution."
Robinson says the public defender program needs an additional 20-million dollars-plus to hire enough lawyers to adequately protect the constitutional rights of accused Missourians.Public defenders in Columbia, Springfield, and Jefferson City have been given permission to refuse to take cases. He expects other county public defenders to get that permission at the rate of at least two counties a month.
Robinson would not be surprised if the refusals generate lawsuits. But on the other side would be lawsuits from accused people claiming inadequate counsel because the public defender does not have the time to adequately represent them.