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Missouri ACLU forum discusses future of criminal justice

by Jeff Haldiman | January 31, 2019 at 6:05 a.m. | Updated January 31, 2019 at 1:20 p.m.

While the governor and head of the Missouri Supreme Court are talking about justice reform measures for lawmakers to address during this legislative session, the head of the Missouri Public Defender System doesn't believe their actions are matching what they've said in recent public speeches.

On Wednesday night, the Missouri ACLU held a forum in Jefferson City to talk with interested members of the public about the future of criminal justice in Missouri.

Public Defender Michael Barrett told the group the presumption when a person is charged with a crime is they will eventually be released. Public defenders are lawyers provided by the state to give legal defense to those who can't afford to hire a private attorney.

"The only time a person is to be incarcerated pretrial, under existing law, is if you are a public safety risk," Barrett said. "We do 80,000 cases a year and when you look at the population report of the jails across the state, the majority of those being kept in jail are being detained, without being convicted of anything, for non-violent offenses. So they're not a public safety risk."

Gov. Mike Parson talked about consolidating two prisons as part of reform efforts during his State of the State speech since the state is running well over capacity, and if something isn't done to reduce the prison population, the state would be forced to spend nearly half-a-billion dollars to build new prisons.

"We're the only department designed to keep people out of prison and yet the governor's recommendation for our department was zero dollars," Barrett said. "The rhetoric is not following the actions."

Barrett noted, in his State of the Judiciary speech Wednesday, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Zel Fischer announced new rules requiring judges to first consider non-monetary conditions for pretrial release. Fischer said it was a shift aimed at reducing court costs that can sometimes derail the lives of low-income defendants.

"There's 4,500 people around this state who are incarcerated without an attorney because we have wait lists for public defenders," Barrett said. "We've reached out for years asking for help from the courts and they have instead asked the Legislature for more technology. Much like the governor, the actions of the courts are not tracking the rhetoric."

If lawmakers and the judiciary are serious about reform, Barrett said one thing that needs to be changed is sending money to counties to detain people before they are convicted of anything.

"We spend $43 million a year for this," Barrett said. "So we're subsidizing a local function and using that as an excuse for why we don't have money to pay for the state function of constitutionally mandated representation. If they paid that, the state wouldn't need to spend the money on local jails because the public defender's purpose is to get non-violent offenders out via bond reduction hearings."

Barrett said an independent audit of the pubic defender's system in Missouri in 2014, done by an accounting firm, suggested the state needed close to 270 public defenders.

"Now, I don't think for a second we'll get what we really need and that goes back to my doubts about the governor wanting to do real prison reform," Barrett said. "Last year, we got a bipartisan measure approved giving $475,000 to provide attorneys to juveniles which we are currently not doing. The governor vetoed that item and did not provide rational for that action."

Barrett said he wants to eliminate the backlog of people waiting for lawyers, but he doesn't think that will happen because of the different goals set for his department by lawmakers and judges.

"What the Legislature wants me to do, is do the best I can with what I've got," Barrett said. "The reason why that's not an acceptable standard is because the Missouri Supreme Court is sanctioning our lawyers when they fall below the standard of care that a lawyer is supposed to provide. The Supreme Court reminds us that we're lawyers just like everyone else and they don't care about how many cases we have. So we're in a pickle with two different standards and because our lawyers are petrified the court will go after their law license as people sit on wait lists until we get to them."

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