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The Missouri State Public Defender system is joining other public defender groups in supporting federal legislation which they say would reform the public defense system across the country.

The National Association for Public Defense was created 10 years ago, said Mary Fox, director of the Office of State Public Defender.

"They are working to get the Equal Defense Act passed in Congress," Fox said. "Public defense has been funded mostly through state and or local governments, and this is an attempt for the federal government to provide additional funding, much as they do for prosecution services throughout the country."

If approved, the act would create a new $250 million grant program to fund public defense, including establishing workload limits for full-time public defenders and achieve pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years.

"We're excited at possibilities of this act," Fox said. "It would also assist state and local governments in providing funding for public defense."

Here in Missouri, state Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper III has publicly called for lawmakers to provide more resources for public defenders, and Fox said they have been getting more support in the Legislature in recent years.

"We're on the path, and in this last session we had support, but then came the pandemic and lawmakers were faced with revenue issues which we completely understood," Fox said. "Looking at what has happened over the last four years, we have seen lawmakers provide more money to contract lawyers to provide counsel to our clients and take some of the burden off our system lawyers.

"They've also provided some more money for salaries and that has helped in retention. It's also helped us reduce costs because it's better to have the same lawyer involved in a case from beginning to end," she said.

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Fox also said the Legislature gave money to provide two children's defense units, one in St. Louis for the eastern side of the state and one in Kansas City for the western half. The eastern office works in five counties and the western office in two, but Fox said they are looking to expand their service area in both offices. The attorneys in these offices are juvenile specialists and work exclusively in juvenile courts.

At the county level, Cole and Greene counties have done agreements with the state public defender's office to provide funding for a few months to contract out some of the cases that had been assigned to the public defender to reduce client wait lists for lawyers.

Fox said she could not comment on the wait list matter because a three-day trial is scheduled next week in Cole County Court over a lawsuit filed in February by civil rights groups to end the use of the wait lists.

The lawsuit alleges more than 4,600 people were on growing waiting lists for a defense attorney in Missouri, and about 600 of those were being held in pretrial detention without legal representation. It blames an overburdened indigent defense system for criminal defendants sometimes waiting months or even years before they are assigned an attorney.

"We still have a long way to go to get the system to where it should be, but we are grateful for each effort," Fox said. "If you're hungry, you work to get one or two bites until one day get the full meal."

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