The ACLU calls the caseloads that Missouri’s public defenders handle a constitutional crisis, prompting the organization to file a class action lawsuit against the state. Tony Rothert with the ACLU of Missouri says the state’s 370 public defenders are handling more than 80,000 cases per year.
“In Missouri, tens of thousands of people each year are pushed through the justice system without receiving adequate legal representation that they’re entitled to,” says Rothert. “Missourians spend months and years in jail unnecessarily, lose jobs, lose family connections, lose their homes and they even plead guilty simply to get out of jail because their public defenders aren’t able to defend their cases in a timely way.”
According to Rothert, Missouri spends $6.20 per resident per year on public defense services. The national average is $18.41 per resident per year.
“That makes us second to last in how much we spend per capita on public defense. Only Mississippi spends less,” says Rothert.
The lawsuit seeks change.
“Right now, it’s unsustainable and it’s getting worse. What we’re asking for is for the defendants, which are the state and the Public Defender Commission, to make changes so that the public defenders can provide adequate legal representation that is the right for criminal defendants,” says Rothert.
The Missouri Public Defender System has requested $67 million for next fiscal year’s budget. Governor Greitens has proposed $44 million.