The people who represent indigent criminal defendants are running low on options.

Missouri’s Public Defender System is among the most poorly funded defended systems in the country. A state appeals court is considering whether the system can refuse to take on more cases because it lacks enough lawyers and can’t get the money to hire more.

Now, the system has frozen hiring so it can pay its bills for the next six months. State Public Defender Marty Robinson says the good news is that veteran attorneys don’t want to leave because of the economy. He says the experienced lawyers who are staying can handle more cases. But the system is still overloaded and, as one of Robinson’s senior lawyers has put it, “the organization that’s tasked with providing lawyers to people who can’t afford to hire lawyers—can’t afford to hire lawyers.”

He says the hiring freeze just deepens the double-problem the system has fought for years–an understaffed office that is under-funded, one of the worst-funded Public Defender systems in the country.

Robinson says a state appeals court in Kansas City will be hearing arguments early this year on whether the state Public Defender System has the power to refuse to take more cases when the defenders don’t have the time to provide adequate defenses.

He’s hoping Missouri’s new governor, Jay Nixon, will understand the situation better than his predecessors because of Nixon’s 16-year career as Attorney General.

Download Bob Priddy’s story (:62 mp3)