Our Opinion: Caseload stresses public defender system – still

News Tribune editorial

“Everything old is new again.” — Songwriter Peter Allen

If the headline for Thursday’s lead story — “Public defenders’ caseloads over capacity” — sounds familiar, your memory is sharp.

The number of criminal cases exceeding available public defenders has posed a problem in Missouri since at least 2006.

The problem hasn’t been ignored, but neither has it been solved.

Some background is helpful.

Missouri in 1982 established a public defender system to meet a constitutional requirement to provide legal representation to all indigent citizens accused of crimes.

The caseload dilemma in 2006 prompted a special legislative committee, which eventually led to legislation, a veto, adoption of administrative rules and litigation.

Today, Cole County is among 17 Missouri counties where cases assigned to a public defender will be monitored. The tracking is designed to determine the hours needed by a public defender to handle each case.

Rules established by the Public Defender Commission permit the office to limit the availability of its attorneys and decline excess cases when it reaches maximum caseload.

Those rules addressed the public defenders’ burden, but not the larger, constitutional requirement to provide legal representation for indigent criminal defendants.

The Supreme Court has suggested a “triage” system to prioritize criminal cases. The recommendation, however, is systematic postponement, not a solution.

The obvious solution is to decrease the caseload or increase defenders.

Crime prevention programs are under way, but results are incremental.

In the absence of tax dollars to hire additional state public defenders, a reasonable remedy is greater pro bono participation by private attorneys.

But, as the Supreme Court also noted in its recent decision, that defense must be adequate — not provided by an attorney who can’t provide the legal skills the defendant needs.

The Missouri Bar, the professional organization for attorneys, in the past has facilitated free legal education and training for members who volunteer to defend criminal cases.

As officers of the court, are mandates or incentives feasible either to require or encourage private attorneys to help reduce the caseload?

The Bar’s Board of Governors is scheduled to consider the issue when it meets in October.

We encourage the board to determine how its members can contribute to a solution.

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