The state’s public defender system will get some help from a new non-profit organization that wants to ease the agency’s caseload size. Richard Scherrer with the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel says more than 20 Missouri law firms, primarily from St. Louis, will help represent those who can’t afford an attorney. The initiative will also provide court room experience to early-career private practice lawyers.
“There will be a recognition by anyone who has even one jury trial. That is a priceless experience and will be a hallmark of their career,” says Scherrer.
The organization, which hopes to go statewide, is perhaps the first of its kind in the U.S. Scherrer says it is designed to last for two years, with the volunteer lawyers ideally handling 1 to 3 cases consecutively over that time period.
“We want to challenge other constituents, most notably the state of Missouri, to continue to upgrade their role in funding the public defender’s office,” says Scherrer.
The state’s 370 public defenders are handling more than 80,000 cases per year.
“There’s no competitiveness at play here. It will, I think, make a big difference in terms of their morale. It will also help to bring the spotlight to the challenges that face our public defender system and how it can be made better,” says Scherrer.
The agency has requested $70 million for next fiscal year’s budget. Governor Greitens (R) has proposed $43 million.
“We’re not in the business of politics. We’re not in the business of pointing fingers,” says Scherrer.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit claiming the caseloads that Missouri’s public defenders are handling are unconstitutional.
The public defender system is in charge of training the coalition’s lawyers, providing mentoring and consulting. The organization also wants to enlist the help of retired judges to serve as mentors and consultants to the lawyers.
Volunteers are expected to undergo training next month. Scherrer plans to begin assigning cases to the attorneys on May 1.