The House has given initial approval to restoring about $6 million in the Attorney General’s budget after a House committee stripped out the money last week and moved the funding into the state Public Defender System’s budget. Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley told Missourinet he felt confident that state lawmakers would restore the funding from his office’s consumer protection fund. Hawley said state law requires the money be devoted to consumer protection.
Missouri Public Defender System director Michael Barrett requested more than $70 million in his 2018 fiscal year budget. Governor Eric Greitens (R) proposed more than $43 million.
Under the spending plan moving through the House, the Public Defender System would get about a $2 million increase over Greitens’ proposed budget that begins in July.
“Regarding the attorney general’s funds, I don’t think we were ever very hopeful that was going to stay in the Public Defender System,” says Barrett. “The real concern here is we’re getting an increase.”
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit claiming the caseloads that Missouri’s public defenders are handling are unconstitutional. The state’s 370 public defenders handle more than 80,000 cases per year.
Barrett says his office needs more money but the increase will make a big difference.
“It’s nonetheless going to be a big difference to helping us achieve our mission to providing the right to counsel to poor people in this state,” says Barrett. “We provide representation in criminal cases for poor people. That’s where it’s going to go. We’re not growing the size of state government. We are not increasing our full-time equivalent count. What we are going to be doing, in cases that present a real inefficiency for our office, we are going to be hiring private attorneys to handle those cases.”
Barrett says an effort will continue by non-profit organization the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel to use private volunteer attorneys to help with the system’s caseload. More than 20 Missouri law firms, mostly in St. Louis, will handle some of the state’s public defense cases.