Last year, the Missouri Public Defender System had more than 5,800 cases on a waiting list for services. Director Mary Fox tells Missourinet no one is currently on that list.
“That doesn’t mean things are perfect. I want to make that clear, but we did make the decision to end the waiting list,” says Fox. “We are trying to use the new staff that we received from the budget in addition to funds that we have to make certain that everybody who applies is able to receive an attorney in a reasonable timeframe.”
The office opens about 60,000 to 80,000 cases annually.
The Missouri Legislature passed and Gov. Mike Parson signed into law a state budget this year that included hiring 53 public defenders to help get rid of the waiting list.
The list was created in 2017. A court ruled that putting individuals on a waiting list to get public defender services violates state and federal law.
Fox’s goal was to eliminate the waiting list by the end of this year. She was able to meet her goal ahead of schedule. The waiting list ended November 30.
“It’s a celebration, but I should point out that we still have way too many attorneys who have responsibility for too many cases at any one time. I think it’s going to even out over time once we are fully staffed. But we received the new staff right at the same time as the great resignation,” she says. “We have had people resigning and retiring at the same time. So, we need to be fully staffed to be able to really provide good representation to each person who qualifies for a public defender. We’re not there yet – but I’m hopeful.”
According to Fox, 43 attorneys have been hired so far.
“We hired quite a few new attorneys this year and we’ve spent a lot of time training them. They are now receiving cases but you can’t say, ‘Hi. Welcome to the Public Defender System. Here’s 150 cases.’ You can but it’s not a good way to manage a system,” she says.
The office is still understaffed by about 30 attorneys.
“If you’re an office with only five attorneys, and one is gone, that’s a big burden to shift to the other attorneys. So, we’re doing what we can to shift resources to make certain that we can provide representation. But as I look at the case numbers that our individual attorneys have, they’re still higher than what would be reasonable under ABA (American Bar Association) norms,” says Fox.
She says she’s thrilled with Gov. Mike Parson’s pursuit for a 5.5% cost of living adjustment and $15 minimum wage for all state workers by February 1. To become a reality, the Missouri Legislature would have to sign off on Parson’s recommendation. State lawmakers begin the next session on January 5.
“Salary has been an issue. We were fortunate that the Legislature did give us a salary increase several years ago but our starting attorneys were still starting at under $50,000 a year and our starting legal assistants were starting under that $15 amount. I’m hoping that with the salary increases that will have an effect on recruitment – getting new people in the door – but also on retention – keeping folks in the system who know what they are doing and as a result, they are well trained and they can handle cases that we can just give to them as their responsibility, as opposed to just constantly bringing in new people.”
If approved by lawmakers, the starting salary for public defenders would be about $52,000.
Other benefits to being a public defender include the following:
*Potential attractive salary increases
*Student loan forgiveness after ten years of service
*Continuing legal education required under Supreme Court rules would be at no cost to the employee
*Missouri Bar dues are paid for
In the System’s next state budget proposal, it is asking for an increase in the amount of money it can seek in grants and gifts. Fox says in order to do so, a Missouri statute must be changed to receive and increase the amount of such gifts.
The System is also asking for 18 additional legal assistants and 18 additional investigators statewide.
“It’s fabulous to have the additional attorneys but we want to get those attorneys now to focus on the legal work – they are the only ones who can go to court and represent people in court. Because we are short on the support staff, they are often doing their own copying, their own mailing, their own investigation of the cases,” says Fox. “If we have sufficient legal assistants and investigators, then hopefully they can shift their focus to the legal aspects of their cases.”
For more information on becoming a public defender, click here.
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