The Public Defender Commission has taken a drastic step, declining new cases in its Springfield office, a drastic step that one prosecutor believes isn’t necessary.

Public Defender Deputy Director Cat Kelly says the Springfield office has exceeded its maximum case load and simply can’t take on new clients. Kelly says the office will operate on a month-by-month basis.

“Based on the number of attorney hours available each month to handle cases; they’ll take that number of cases and case type and then close for the rest of the month, re-open August 1st, for a few weeks, then close, then re-open September 1st,” Kelly explains. “The moral of the story is I guess you want to try to be charged early in a month instead of late in the month.”

The Springfield office has 20 public defenders. It serves Greene, Christian and Taney Counties. Public defenders are assigned to clients charged with a criminal offense who cannot afford their own attorney.

The Public Defender’s decision caught Greene County Prosecutor Darrel Moore off guard.

“I’m disappointed,” Moore says. “We’ve done everything in our power in Greene County to assist the public defenders with their caseload.”

Moore says several moves have been taken by his office and by the courts to lessen the load on public defenders.

“So, I’m disappointed, because the reality is that regardless of what we’ve done to try to help them, they still count a case as taking the same number of hours regardless of whether they really spend one hour on it or three hours on it,” Moore says. “So, I think that kind of false bookkeeping of time is wrong.”

The Springfield office is the first to turn away new cases. It likely won’t be the last. Twenty Judicial Circuits have been warned that their public defender offices are pushing close to their maximum caseloads.

[Missourinet affiliate, KTTS of Springfield, contributed to this story]

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [1:25 MP3]