The Missouri State Auditor has released an audit of the State Public Defender System that raises questions about how caseloads are calculated. The heads of the associations for the state’s prosecutors and public defenders debate what that means for the idea that there is a caseload crisis.
In a news release, the Auditor says the system is “unable to accurately determine the resources needed to manage caseloads.”
The audit finds the system determines needed attorney hours by converting a national standard from 1973 with the assumption of each attorney working 2,080 hours per year, but calculates the number available attorney hours based on each attorney working an average of 1,536 hours per year.
The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys says the audit “shatters” the claim that there is a growing crisis of caseload size for the state’s public defenders.
President Eric Zahnd says the audit “reveals that that claim is really simply a myth that has been manufactured by misleading caseload statistics.”
Public Defender System Director Cat Kelly says regardless of how caseloads are calculated, there is no question that there is a caseload issue.
“The question is not, ‘Do we have a problem,’ it’s, ‘Where exactly, precisely should the line be drawn for us to say we can take this many and no more,'” she says “That’s what the debate is over, is where the line is drawn. I would contend that we are so far under that you could draw the line almost anywhere and we would be better off than where we are now.”
Kelly says the audit findings that the caseload protocol need to be improved are not new and says her office is already working to develop a new system not based on national caseload standards. She says an expert that worked with her office, Norman Lefstein, a law professor and dean emeritus at Indiana University, says an upated protocol could reveal a caseload problem that is greater than thought now.
“In his opinion, the protocol that we’re using now … its deficiency is that it has us taking on too many cases, not too few,” Kelly says.
Zahnd says the audit shows public defenders have no basis to defend turning away new clients. Kelly says that isn’t going to happen any time soon, “because the number of cases they have isn’t changing. The caseload is not changing … this is an argument over what is the best measurement of the problem. That doesn’t change the fact that the problem exists.”