A new agreement could help the local public defender office hire outside attorneys to take Cole County criminal cases in an effort to reduce the wait list of offenders who need an attorney to represent them.
Cole County commissioners met Tuesday with Cole County Judge Jon Beetem; Justin Carver, who heads the local public defender office serving Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties; and State Public Defender Director Mary Fox.
The idea was brought to Beetem’s attention by Cole County Sheriff John Wheeler, who found Greene County had done a similar agreement and officials there noticed a reduction in their wait list.
The Greene County agreement calls for the county to provide funding to engage private attorneys to represent indigent defendants charged with a criminal offense. The state public defenders office agrees to provide funding for the same purpose as its budget allows to match what the county funds.
Beetem proposed the Cole County Commission contribute $10,000 before July 1, the start of the fiscal year for the state, then ask for $15,000 after July 1. He believes that would increase the chance for the state public defenders office to match the funding.
Beetem believes money could take care of 66 cases.
As of Friday afternoon, there were 317 cases on the Cole County wait list, he said. Some on the list have been there for four to five months, Carver said.
It usually takes 90 days for cases to go through the court system, from filing of charges to sentencing.
Eastern District Commissioner Jeff Holescher asked Beetem if this would increase burdens on the Sheriff’s Department or on the county’s pre-trial screening program, which is designed to help judges determine which defendants should be bonded and supervised rather than jailed before a trial.
Wheeler said it would probably help both entities, especially the pre-trial program, which recently has been going through personnel changes and had to reduce the number of people it supervises.
“I’m not happy having to solve a problem that I believe is a state problem, but at the same time we have to help ourselves, and I think this has a chance to do that,” Hoelscher said.
Fox told commissioners she and other officials in her office continue trying to convince state lawmakers they need more money. It would require $3 million to take care of all the cases the state public defenders office needs to address, but Gov. Parson did not include it in his budget, Fox said.
Western District Commissioner Kris Scheperle told Beetem he would like for a report to be given to the commission on how effective this has been, before July 1, so commissioners can decide if they want to continue the program.