As Missouri Lawmakers cobble together a budget to deal with a shortage of funding, they appear to be receptive to lending more financial support to the state’s cash strapped public defender system.
The House Budget Committee allocated the agency an additional $6.8 million Tuesday night from what Governor Eric Greitens had proposed in his budget. The money would come from funding originally intended for the Attorney General’s office.
Department director Michael Barrett submitted a request for $70 million in late February to cover costs in the upcoming fiscal year.
Republican House Budget Committee Chairman Scott Fitzpatrick of Shell Knob notes the figure reflects the best case scenario for the Agency.
“I think he knows that that’s not realistic” said Fitzpatrick. “It’s based on a study that they had done that shows what an acceptable case load was, and things like that.”
The public defender caseload has increased 12 percent since 2014, from 74,000 to 82,000. The agency has about 580 employees, including roughly 350 attorneys.
Director Barrett recently told lawmakers the lion’s share of a $4.5 million increase in funding last year was withheld because of a budget shortfall.
This year, Governor Greitens is calling for $572 million in budget cuts starting in July to deal to with under-performing revenues. He’s allocated $43.6 million for the Public Defender System, which is less than half of what Director Barrett had sought.
Fitzpatrick says the agency will likely get more money, but it’ll be limited by financial constraints.
“We’re not in a position, in a year when we’re cutting over a half billion dollars in the budget, to double the amount of money we’re spending on the public defender. But even though we’re are cutting a lot of things out of the budget, one of things we are increasing is the public defender’s budget.”
After meeting to discuss the agency’s financial situation, Fitzpatrick says he and Barrett came to an agreement that a $2 million increase in funding would satisfy the most pressing needs.
“I understand the challenges he has in his office. We talked about what a solution to getting him on better footing would be. He and I both agreed that another $2 million over what the governor had recommended would help him resolve a lot of problems in his office.”
The call for increased funding for the Public Defender System reached the courts earlier this month when a class action lawsuit was filed by a group led by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The suit says the public defenders budget is “shockingly inadequate,” paying only $356 per case, which ranks Missouri 49th out of 50 states in per capita spending.
According to ranking House Budget Committee Democrat Michael Butler of St. Louis, judges have also created problems for the agency. He says judges have caused backlogs by making public defenders wait in court for hours before cases are heard.