The Missouri Public Defender System has seen more support from the state Legislature in recent years to do more to represent indigent persons who can't afford an attorney and need legal representation in court.
The Office of State Public Defender requested 12 new attorneys in October, with an attorney to be placed in 12 offices where there is a wait list for a public defender, Director Mary Fox said.
In his proposed budget given to lawmakers last week, Gov. Mike Parson recommended approving the request at a cost of $820,000.
Fox said she was extremely pleased with Parson's recommendation and believes it demonstrates recognition of the problem they're facing and a willingness to work to resolve it.
The Jefferson City office, which represents clients in Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties, would get a new lawyer under this proposal.
While they are excited about the possibility of adding an attorney, Fox said there is currently no space for another attorney to work.
"Some of our offices have the space needed, and others don't," Fox said. "We've talked with the Cole County Commission about our space needs and would like to again because our office only occupies the upper portion of the Carnegie Building on Adams Street. We currently have authorization for eight attorneys. This would give us nine."
Cole County Lead Public Defender Justin Carver said right now they have seven attorneys working with one on military duty.
"We love the location because it is so close to the courthouse, but I would probably have to work in the hallway so the new attorney could get into an office space," Carver said. "I'll do whatever it takes to help, though."
The other 11 offices that would get a lawyer under the proposal are located in St. Charles, Fulton, Columbia, Harrisonville, Union, Rolla, Lebanon, Carthage, Springfield, West Plains and Monett.
Fox said public defender wait lists have to be approved to be used by the judges in the various circuits in the state, which they have done in Cole County.
There were 233 cases on the wait list in Cole County at the end of last week, Carver said.
"The amount of time people have to stay on wait lists varies," Fox said. "The biggest issues are in Jefferson City, Columbia, Springfield and St. Charles. In Springfield, we added staff to that office, but the caseload is still growing. We have to get to the heart of why caseloads are growing in some of these offices."
In some instances, Fox said, they've found it's how the prosecution of certain cases is handled.
"For years in St. Louis County, there were a large number of cases for failure to pay child support, and that led to a large caseload," she said. "Then there was a change in the prosecutor's office where they decided to pursue these cases through civil court and not criminal. That's one way to decrease the caseload for the prosecutor, public defender and the courts.
"I would also point out that there are other offices that don't have a wait list but are still overloaded," Fox added.
A lawsuit filed in February 2020 by civil rights groups to end the use of public defender wait lists is still pending.
The lawsuit alleges thousands of people were on growing wait lists for a defense attorney in Missouri and hundreds were being held in pre-trial detention without legal representation. It blames an overburdened indigent defense system for criminal defendants sometimes waiting months or years before they are assigned an attorney.
Meanwhile, public defenders are talking with jurisdictions about taking cases off the wait list by providing funds for private lawyers to take some of the cases.
In December, judges in Cole County announced 40 attorneys had agreed to help handle mostly misdemeanor and simple felony cases. Fox's office heard about the project and said they thought they could find extra money to hire the outside attorneys.
The Cole County Commission approved an agreement with the state public defender to do this in March 2020. Despite restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, the judges said they saw a reduction in the wait list. Heading into 2020, the wait list had more than 300 cases.
"The lawyers who have agreed to take the cases are paid at a set rate, and they're not getting rich off that work," Fox said. "For drug felonies it's $750, and for a probation violation or misdemeanor it's $375. One of our biggest issues we face is, even if we have the funds, many locations don't have attorneys who will take cases at the contract rates."
While they are getting more support at the local and state levels, Fox said they believe help from the federal government could be coming the future.
Fox said they hope someone in Congress will take the lead on the Equal Defense Act, which had been sponsored by then-Sen. Kamala Harris, who is now vice president of the United States. The act called for creating a new $250 million grant program to fund public defense, including establishing workload limits for full-time public defenders and achieving pay parity between public defenders and prosecutors within five years.
"We think the new administration would be in favor of such a program, and because we have good analysis of work load data for our state, that could be used to help us get federal funds — but that is something to look at down the road," Fox said.