For several years officials with the Missouri State Public Defender System have said they need more funds to hire more lawyers. The head of the Missouri Supreme Court announced his support for that cause Wednesday.
During the annual State of the Judiciary address, given to a joint session of the Missouri Legislature, Chief Justice George Draper III talked about how many of the lawyers he faced when he served as a prosecutor were public defenders.
"Speaking from the perspective of both a former prosecutor and a former trial judge, I can tell you the system simply does not work without a sufficiently funded and staffed public defender system," Draper said.
Missouri's public defender system began in 1972 as the state's response to a 1965 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that found the federal Constitution's 6th Amendment right to counsel includes poor people who can't afford their own attorney.
In Missouri, the public defender's office is appointed to a criminal case only when there's a possibility of a jail or prison sentence and the defendant can't pay to hire a lawyer. Historically, the system's attorneys have had a large caseload and constant turnover.
Document: Missouri State of the Judiciary 2020View
"To be sure, all attorneys in public service work long, hard hours, and many are underpaid and under-recognized," Draper said. "However, if criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street, those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of society, and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives."
During a December meeting with Cole County judges, Justin Carver, who heads the local public defender office serving Cole, Miller and Moniteau counties, told judges there was a wait list of nearly 340 cases. Of that number, nearly 200 were from Cole County.
Carver noted the oldest case dated back to June. He said the majority on the wait list are cases where the defendant is not being held in custody. They look for the oldest cases of those in custody as the ones to deal with first on the wait list.
Carver is authorized to have seven assistant public defenders.
One way to help relieve the caseloads for public defenders and the courts has been the use of alternative courts. In Wednesday's address, Draper noted Missouri now has more than 100 counties served by more than 120 treatment courts — adult, juvenile, family and DWI courts.
"Because of House Bill 547, which you also passed last year, we will have treatment courts established in every circuit in the state by August 2021," Draper told legislators Wednesday.
Cole County has Drug Court, DWI court and Veterans Court. Prosecutor Locke Thompson said they are trying to develop another alternative court in the future.
Draper also asked lawmakers to continue efforts to increase the pay of the 3,600 people who work in the state court system.
"We simply cannot ask these people — who reside in your communities and work in our court system — to live below the value of their service," Draper said. "On their behalf, we thank you for your appropriations over the past few years of salary increases to bring our lowest-paid staff to at least the base of where our classification and compensation study shows they should be. However, if we want to retain the good employees we have and be able to recruit high-quality workers as positions become open, we need to move our staff toward market salary goals."