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Solutions sought for local public defender caseloads

Solutions sought for local public defender caseloads

November 17th, 2017 by Bob Watson in Local News

This Oct. 29, 2014 file photo shows Cole County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Richardson in court.

Cole County Presiding Circuit Judge Pat Joyce hopes to get some local attorneys to help with some of the public defenders' caseload.

Her comments came during an hour-long hearing Thursday on District Public Defender Justin Carver's request to hold a conference on caseload issues.

The hearing was a follow-up to a similar meeting last week, where Joyce found local public defenders' caseloads were at a point where something needs to be done to make sure clients are given adequate representation.

The U.S. Constitution's Sixth Amendment requires defendants in all criminal prosecutions to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.

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

Carver's office has eight lawyers, including himself, who are assigned to work cases in Cole, Moniteau and Miller counties.

However, Missouri's public defenders have been saying for years they get more cases than they can handle. Missouri currently is involved in a lawsuit filed by the ACLU and others complaining the state historically has underfunded the public defender operations.

Still, recent court cases have said the public defenders can't refuse to take a case unless allowed to do so by the courts.

Carver began Thursday's hearing with a report that he's hired an additional attorney, although he still has one vacancy because one of his attorneys is deployed on military duty.

"As far as inmates in the jail," he said, "I think we're in much better shape than we were when we last saw you, or a month ago."

If the judge would hold a meeting at the beginning of each month to discuss the cases filed against those being held in the Cole County Jail, he said his attorneys should be able to add those cases to their workloads.

Of more concern are cases for people who are not being held in a jail — 71 cases this month, Carver said.

That's the area Joyce thinks private attorneys might help the most.

"I want to review the 71 cases, and see if we can get some private representation to reduce that backlog," she said. "Can we manage the system and have volunteers from the bar — and then get rid of the wait-list?"

One of the complaints over the years has been that private attorneys often take criminal cases without having a background in criminal law.

"Indigent clients deserve people who do criminal law," Cole County Prosecutor Mark Richardson said.

However, Joyce answered: "I'm not going to be trying to get someone who just does estates" — adding many of Cole County's lawyers have been generous in offering to help the situation.

Richardson argued 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 said, adding with better time management, "they can move those cases."

Carver acknowledged he's trying to improve that part of the local public defender operations.

Joyce also wondered if Carver's budget would make some money available for private attorneys — especially with the one vacancy caused by the military deployment.

Carver said he'd have to check with State Public Defender Michael Barrett about that.

No date was set for the next meeting on the issue.