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Missouri House panel debates public defender funding

by Samantha Dietel | January 25, 2023 at 4:01 a.m.

The Missouri House Judiciary Committee heard testimony Monday about a bill that would create a fund for federal grants, private donations and other funds meant to go to public defenders.

The committee also discussed three other bills designed to clarify language or correct oversights from previous legislation.

The public defender funding bill, sponsored by Rep. David Evans, R-West Plains, would create the "Public Defender -- Federal and Other Fund" so that "any funds available from government grants, private gifts, donations, bequests or other sources" are placed in it.

Currently, those donations go to the state's general revenue fund, according to the bill summary.

Mary Fox, Missouri state public defender director, testified in support of the bill. Fox said this problem was created in 1982, but this bill can ensure that donations or grants can be used in the ways they were intended.

Fox said a donation from a lawyer from Boone County brought this issue to attention.

"I was concerned that if she gave us that money, I could not guarantee that it would do exactly what she wanted," Fox said.

Fox said that since then, she has been working to clarify the statute so "that it is clear what would happen if you wanted to give us a gift."

Fox said that if this bill passes the public defenders will be in a better position to apply for more grants.

Fox also said some attorneys are handling 150-200 cases at a time. Attorneys need a reasonable caseload, but in order for this to happen, the public defenders need funding, she said.

"We're moving in the right direction ... but we still have a ways to go," Fox said.

The committee also heard arguments for a bill that would clarify the steps in salary ranges for court reporters, which was sponsored by Rep. Ben Keathley, R-Chesterfield. The bill would ensure that reporters receive the raise that was adjusted for them two years ago, Keathley said.

Keathley said the language of HB 271 from two years ago allowed for this mistake.

"I do intend on making this a priority of getting out of the House," said Evans, who chairs the committee.

The hearing also featured a bill that would clarify the factors considered when a judge sets bail, such as if a person is a flight risk or threat to a victim.

The work of the Missouri News Network is written by Missouri School of Journalism students and editors for publication by Missouri Press Association member newspapers.

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