State lawmakers have heard the Chief Justice state the need, but aren’t sure Missouri has the resources this year to fix a troubled public defender system.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith doesn’t shy from calling the lack of public defenders a crisis.
“It is a crisis, absolutely. It is a crisis now and has been for some time,” Stith tells the Missourinet. “I know that the governor and the legislature shares our concern for that.”
Stith emphasized the crisis during her State of the Judiciary addressed delivered to a joint session of the legislature. In that speech, Stith noted that the United States Constitution guarantees defendants both a speedy trial and competent legal counsel. She pointed out that other states have been sued, because they lacked an adequate number of public defenders. At least one state, Louisiana, is seeking money from Congress for its public defender system to avoid releasing hundreds of criminal defendants awaiting trial.
House Crime Prevention Committee Chairman Scott Lipke (R-Jackson) shares the concern that too few public defenders take on too many cases.
“We’re quickly approaching a point of, maybe, no return where we’re gonna have to do some drastic things to insure that defendants and those who are accused have fair and adequate counsel and can get a speedy trial,” says Lipke.
Lipke says the problem varies throughout Missouri. He says the primary problem is obtaining enough public defenders and then being able to pay them enough to retain them.
Sen. Jack Goodman (R-Mt. Vernon) says this is one of the rare cases in which spending more money can address the problem. He says the system simply needs more public defenders.
“I think the crisis is escalating,” says Goodman, “In that, over the past couple of years we’ve seen that our public defenders have been and continue to be forced to breach their legal, ethical requirements by working case loads that are too large.”
Both Goodman and Lipke say the legislature is unlikely to allocate any more money for public defenders this session.
Goodman sponsors SB37 that attempts to ease the caseload on public defenders, but doesn’t solve the problem. He says that if it isn’t solved, Missouri could be forced to release criminal defendants before they go to trial.