The Missouri House Budget Committee learned Monday in Jefferson City that some public defenders have been asked to sit in court for hours, before their cases come up.
Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett presented his office’s budget to the committee at the Capitol. State Rep. Michael Butler (D-St. Louis) tells the committee that some judges have been requiring public defenders to wait in court for hours for their cases to come up, creating a backlog.
Barrett says Butler, the House Minority Caucus Chair, is correct.
“Now for that public defender, they’re not doing any work … written work, legal work … for their clients at all that day,” Barrett testifies. “And when you have 150, 175 clients, you can’t afford to spend one whole day for two or three clients.”
Missouri Supreme Court clerk Betsy AuBuchon requested more information from Butler during Monday’s hearing, saying this is the first she’s heard of this.
While Barrett’s office requested $70 million, Governor Eric Greitens’ (R) proposed budget includes $43.6 million for the State Public Defender.
“The governor’s rec (budget recommendation) this year is a core cut of a million dollars, which would essentially put us back to the funding level that was appropriated in 2014,” Barrett says.
Barrett says the number of cases handled by the State Public Defender’s office has increased 12 percent during that time, from 74,000 to about 82,000.
The office has about 580 employees, including approximately 350 attorneys.
House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick (R-Shell Knob) tells Missourinet Barrett “makes a good case” for why he’s underfunded. Fitzpatrick doesn’t think the General Assembly will provide $70 million.
“Yeah, I mean we can’t do that,” Fitzpatrick says. “But we will be looking at his (Barrett’s) budget and seeing if there’s any way we can help him out, because I think he does a good job and he makes a good case for why he’s underfunded and how doing better for him could probably save the state a lot of money.”
Barrett tells lawmakers that while his agency received a $4.5 million budget increase last year, $3.5 million of that funding was withheld. Barrett filed a lawsuit against then-Governor Jay Nixon (D) in July, arguing Nixon didn’t have the authority to withhold the funding. In August, Barrett assigned Nixon to serve as a public defender, as a protest to Nixon’s budget freeze. Cole County Circuit Judge Pat Joyce ruled in favor of Nixon, saying only courts can appoint public defenders.
Barrett also testifies that his office received a $3.5 million increase in 2014, after an audit. However, he says that money was withheld and “core cut” from the budget the next fiscal year.
Rep. Butler’s comments were also the first time any of the committee members had heard about some judges requiring public defenders to sit in court for hours before their cases are called up.
Fitzpatrick tells Missourinet he hopes to see cooperation between the Judiciary and the Public Defender’s office to make public defenders more efficient, without placing an “undue burden” on judges.