State Supreme Court Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith has issued a warning to lawmakers during her State of the Judiciary address delivered to a joint session of the General Assembly.

Stith told legislators that funding of Missouri’s public defender system has reached a critical stage and could trigger a lawsuit, challenging whether Missouri provides poor criminal defendants a speedy trial and competent legal counsel.

“One measure of a society’s justice system is how well it handles the worst of citizens who come before it,” Stith said during her address at the Capitol. “Well, I hope there are other measures too, because of all states with statewide public defender systems, Missouri ranks dead last in per capita funding of public defenders.”

The problem, according to Stith, affects both the defendants in criminal cases and the victims. Defendants might be denied their constitutional guarantees to quick public trials and adequate defense. Victims sometimes must watch in frustration as evidence or witnesses disappear and stress increases. She warned that, if not corrected, defendants potentially could be set free without going to trial.

“Missouri does not want to find itself in the position of other states, such as Indiana, Montana and Washington, that were faced with the possibility of releasing prisoners or lawsuits from the ACLU if they did not fix their public defender crises,” stated Stith.

Stith said Louisiana had to seek a bailout from Congress for the public defender program to avoid releasing hundreds of prisoners. She said working with the legislature to find creative solutions to remedy the worsening situation in Missouri’s public defender system is one of the judiciary’s key priorities this legislative session.

Download/listen Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith State of Judiciary address (25 min MP3)