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Public defenders continue to seek case-load relief

Public defenders continue to seek case-load relief

December 17th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

Justin Carver — who heads the District 19 public defender's office serving Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties — wants judges in all three counties to give his office some caseload relief.

He argues the eight lawyers, including himself, who are assigned to work cases in the three counties are getting more cases than they can handle, so they can't provide a valid, legal defense for all of the clients they've been assigned.

Presiding Circuit Judge Kenneth Hayden is scheduled to hear Carver's caseload relief motion at 1 p.m. Friday in Miller County — and Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Pat Joyce held a similar hearing last month.

Moniteau County Prosecutor Shayne Healea declined to comment specifically on Carver's arguments, since his caseload relief request in that county "has yet to be taken up."

Healea said Friday: "The Legislature created a path for the Public Defender to seek relief and provide evidence to the Court in support of (that).

"I believe we need to let that process work and allow the Court to render a decision based on the evidence presented at the hearing."

Miller County Prosecutor Ben Winfrey couldn't be reached last week for a comment.

But the prosecutors generally have opposed Carver's requests, saying they're not necessary.

"If there was such a crisis, we would see a ton of trial judges finding public defenders to be ineffective and courts of appeal decisions reversing cases (and ordering) new trials," Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson said Saturday. "That is not happening."

The cases at issue involve people who have been charged with a crime — where a jail or prison sentence is a possibility — but cannot afford to hire their own attorney.

The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment requires defendants in all criminal prosecutions to have the assistance of counsel for their defense, and the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that means the state must make sure people who can't afford a lawyer still have one in a criminal case.

Missouri and other states created public defender systems to provide that legal counsel.

Richardson referenced his comments to Joyce at the Nov. 17 hearing on Carver's request in Cole County.

He said then that part of Carver's caseload problem is sending too many people to court on days when the only reason for the appearance is scheduling.

"Time management becomes very critical on every case," he told Joyce last month, adding with better time management, "they can move those cases."

Joyce said during that hearing she hopes to get local attorneys to help with some of the public defenders' caseload.

Richardson asked her also to consider an early resolution program he said "would result in more timely justice for the community and victims of crime where there is overwhelming evidence of guilt and essentially no defense to the crime alleged."

Richardson, Healea and Winfrey all argue their offices have larger caseloads than the public defender's office because they also have cases where the defendant has a private practice attorney, and they handle misdemeanor cases where a jail sentence isn't a possibility.

Richardson said Saturday: "And prosecuting attorney offices review many cases that the public defender never sees because they don't get filed."

Winfrey said in a statement issued earlier this month, his office will file nearly 1,600 criminal cases in 2017 — including crimes ranging from murder and child molestation to misdemeanor theft, but not including traffic violations and other infractions filed daily.

Winfrey noted the office still is working on cases filed in previous years.

Also, he said: "The Miller County Prosecuting Attorney's Office is responsible for serving as the county's attorney, which means managing litigation, reviewing and negotiating contracts, and other jobs of a private attorney" — in addition to other responsibilities, "such as managing the Infant Fatality Review Board to review the causes of Miller County child fatalities."

Healea told the News Tribune: "My office is the only office in the five-county 26th Circuit (Moniteau, Miller, Morgan, Camden and Laclede counties) that runs the entire office with only one prosecutor. My staff consists of two administrative assistants, and we do not have an investigator.

"In addition to the day-to-day case management duties of Moniteau County, I also frequently am assigned to handle special prosecutions for other counties, inside and outside my circuit."

Carver agreed there are differences in the duties of local prosecutors' offices and his public defender's office, but he rejected the idea those shouldn't be part of the conversation.

"The number of active PA (prosecuting attorney) cases as compared to the number of active defense cases is not a good measure of workload in that PAs and PDs (public defenders) do different work on the same case," Carver explained. "When a case comes in to the PA's office, they review the police reports, any criminal history, and they send a plea offer. On many cases, that may be all that they do."

On the other hand, Carver said, if a judge assigns a case to his office, the public defenders must meet with the client to discuss the charges and what they could mean for the client's future, discuss "every defense to the charges, how the court process works, discuss future court hearings (and), if possible, attempt to get the person released" either on a bond or a pretrial release.

Carver said his budget for all three counties — including child support cases — is $591,162.

He noted the state's end of child support cases are handled by separate offices from the prosecutors, so their office budgets don't include that work.

Carver said the county prosecutors' budgets — without child support cases — are $1,263,989 in Cole County; $312,850 in Miller County; and $232,768 in Moniteau County.

"The grand total for the three prosecutors' offices is $1,809,607," he said. "The public defender office has (by the Cole prosecuting attorney's estimate) 80 percent of the cases of the PA's office, but has 33 percent of the budget" compared with the three counties' total.

But because of the differences in their jobs, Richardson said that's not a fair comparison either.

Although they prosecute cases under state law and on behalf of the state, the prosecutors and their staff are county employees of each separate county — with disparate tax bases, Richardson said.

Carver's budget is part of a larger, statewide budget for the Public Defender system funded by a state appropriation.

Missouri government currently is the defendant in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and others complaining the state historically has underfunded the public defender operations.

Missouri's public defenders have been saying for years they get more cases than they can handle, and lawyers' ethical standards prohibit them from giving their clients inadequate representation.

Still, recent Missouri court cases have said the public defenders can't refuse to take a case unless allowed to do so by the courts, which is why Carver has asked for the caseload hearings.