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Two years ago, we argued the scales of justice are tipped against the poor due to a woefully underfunded Missouri's public defender system.

Missouri was ranked No. 49 out of the 50 states in per capita spending for indigent defendants.

We suggested if the Missouri Legislature didn't adequately fund Missouri's public defender office, the state would see more lawsuits.

We reported about one such suit last week.

Civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit to end Missouri's use of public defender "wait lists," a practice they contend deprives thousands of people of their right to court-appointed counsel.

The Associated Press/News Tribune story said the lawsuit alleges more than 4,600 people were on growing waiting lists for a defense attorney in Missouri, and about 600 of those are 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.

In January, the chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court used the State of the Judiciary as a bully pulpit for the cause.

Chief Justice George Draper III said: "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 attorneys in public service work long hours, and many are underpaid.

"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."

We renew our plea to state lawmakers to take a serious look at the Missouri Public Defender System's funding.

We've said it before, and we'll say it again: Ensuring every Missourian has adequate legal representation in criminal court isn't merely fair or moral, it's required in the U.S. Constitution.

News Tribune

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