Despite being close to handling its maximum number of cases, Missouri’s Public Defender System Director said she does not think a waiting list for services will be reinstated. During a recent court hearing, Director Mary Fox said the System expects to handle slightly fewer cases in the current budget year.
The wait list was created back in 2017 because the System dealt with serious staffing shortages and large caseloads.
“The Public Defender Commission was not happy with the use of the wait list, so I don’t think that they would authorize a wait list moving forward. I think there are other ways to manage additional cases that are better than the use of a waitlist,” she said.
Looking back to 2021, more than 5,800 names were on the list. Then a court ruled last year that putting poor people on a waiting list for public defender services violates state and federal law. That’s when the state began taking measures to get rid of the list.
In fiscal year 2022, the Legislature put $3.6 million in the budget to hire an additional 57 public defenders. The System then received funding in this 2023 budget year to hire additional support staff.
During the court hearing, Fox, who has led the System since 2020, said her offices are better staffed today than in 2019 and 2020.
“For the next fiscal year, we are not requesting any additional full-time employees as attorneys or workforce staff members. We are asking for a continuation of our core budget.”
Fox said the System still has openings in 23 of its trial offices, and that number varies from day to day. Springfield and Kansas City have had several openings. Fox said turnover has declined the last three months but hiring has been consistent since bar exam results came out in September.
Another pay increase could be on the horizon for Missouri state workers.
“We spoke with the budget office about a pay increase again for this year. We were requested by the budget office to not put it into our individual budget but told that the governor will come out with a budget increase plan across the board,” Fox said during the hearing.
Missouri has one of the lowest paid state work forces in the nation. Gov. Mike Parson’s tenure has included a state worker pay raise each year. The last increase, of 7.5%, might have been the largest in Missouri’s history.
“Which has helped with recruitment and retention but unfortunately inflation has eaten away as much of that,” said Fox.
Meanwhile, due to the passage of recreational marijuana, the Missouri Public Defender System will get part of the tax proceeds. The revenue could ultimately help the System better deal with its caseloads and provide higher quality legal representation to its clients.
“We took a look at the fiscal notes that were filed with the amendment. Based on the fiscal notes, it could be as much as $4 million in the first fiscal year where tax revenues are received,” she said.
Fox said the System is not spending any funding yet as a result of the legalization of marijuana.
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