The Missouri Public Defender system has been struggling to keep up with the number of cases assigned to it — a federal grant is sweetening the pot for those who agree to stay on for a few more years.
The Missouri Bar says the average caseload for a trial public defender is more than 300, when the Public Defender Commission says the maximum should be around 230.
Now, if some public defenders and prosecutors agree to sign on for a few more years, the federal government will help them repay their student loans.
Department of Public Safety spokesman Mike O’Connell says that will boost retention. He says the Justice Grants awards were made to 29 prosecutors and 11 public defenders across the state.
Missouri’s piece of the competitive grant money totals close to $170,000, all of which will help pay off existing student loans of prosecutors and defenders. The goal is to make public careers in the criminal justice system more competitive with the private sector.
“Getting and retaining talented attorneys for positions with state prosecuting attorneys and state and public defenders is essential to ensuring that Missouri’s criminal justice system works efficiently and that justice is served,” says Department of Public Safety Director John M. Britt. “This program, which is funded entirely with federal funds, can help make public careers in the criminal justice system more competitive with the private sector.”
There is a stipulation that comes with the money: prosecutors and public defenders receiving the financial assistance must agree to remain employed as prosecutors and public defenders for at least three years. The contract period is Oct. 1, 2010 to Sept. 30, 2011. O’Connell says those who terminate those contracts will have to pay back any grant money they received.
The money comes through the John R. Justice Grant Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Assistance, assists full-time state prosecutors and state or federal public defenders who are continually licensed to practice law and prosecute criminal or juvenile delinquency cases.
The Department of Public Safety, Office of the Director is the state administering agency.
Funds were made available to states based on the total population of each state, with a minimum amount of $100,000. Missouri received a total of $169,423. The money will be paid quarterly, directly to the institution that holds the student loan. The individual is responsible for continuing to make payments on their loan during the contract period.
The program is named for the late John Reid Justice of South Carolina, a former president of the National District Attorneys Association.
From the Missouri Bar:
The Missouri Bar Public Defender Task Force
The Missouri Public Defender System needs help. Public defenders have too many cases to handle. To ensure that defendants receive their constitutional guarantee of effective assistance of legal counsel, the caseload must be reduced.
Today, the average caseload for a trial public defender is 305 cases. This exceeds by almost one-third the maximum caseload size of 235 cases that was determined 15 years ago by then-Governor Ashcroft and the State Public Defender Commission.
The gap between resources and demands is even more critical when you take into account that defending criminal cases is a much more complex and time-consuming activity than it was 15 years ago. The Public Defender Commission reports that some of the reasons for this are: intricate sentencing laws, bifurcated trials, complex scientific evidence, changes in immigration laws and federal sentencing rules, sexually violent predator laws and treatment courts.
In search of long-term substantive solutions, the bar created a task force </244f790c-eceb-46db-a9da-6a650ba09bca.aspx> to study the problem and propose and promote solutions. The concept was to get everyone to the table – public defenders, prosecutors, judges, legislators, private counsel, and the like – to examine the system and come to some consensus as to what needed to be done. That task force first met in July of 2005, and one of its first acts was to engage the services of an independent consultant to analyze Missouri’s public defender system. We wanted an objective analysis, and we wanted a comparison with public defender systems in other parts of the country. The State Public Defender agreed to put all issues on the table, and to open his office up for such an analysis and the recommendations that might follow. The Spangenberg Group <http://members.mobar.org/pdfs/legislation/spangenberg.pdf>, the preeminent national firm in the area of indigent criminal defense, was engaged and set about the task. The report that came out of that examination starkly confirmed the cry for help from the public defender system. The system is truly in a state of crisis, on the brink of collapse. Fortunately, good news came out of that report as well – we had a very good public defender system, and we had a corps of very dedicated public defenders.
The Missouri Bar Public Defender Task Force was assigned the chore of obtaining good, verifiable information on the status of the Missouri State Public Defender System, and educating the task force so that we understand and are informed on all the issues and causes surrounding the current crisis. Having completed that task, the goal of the task force is to develop recommendations to solve what we perceive to be the problems facing the system.
The work of the task force is ongoing.