"If you can't afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you if you want one."
That's typically part of your Miranda Rights as a criminal defendant. The problem is Missouri doesn't have enough public defenders to adequately represent defendants in a timely manner.
Fortunately, the Missouri Legislature is looking to help the situation.
The Senate Appropriations Committee voted to boost funding for the agency, potentially allowing for the hiring of 53 more lawyers, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently reported.
The bill still needs approval by the full House and Senate. It's in response to a lawsuit that found waiting lists used by the department were illegal, according to the paper.
Here in Cole County, Presiding Judge Jon Beetem has said there are 188 cases on the list of people who need public defender representation.
As we recently reported, he noted Justin Carver, head of the Cole County Public Defender Office, is doing interviews for three openings he is trying to fill.
The judges' concern is new lawyers would need time to get up to speed on the specifics of cases, and that would cause delays.
Waiting lists started in 2017 after the Missouri Supreme Court took steps to punish public defenders who have high caseloads and are unable to provide sufficient legal representation, the Post-Dispatch reported.
The paper said the waiting list was created to ensure attorneys don't endanger their law licenses, said Mary Fox, director of the state public defender system.
But the American Civil Liberties Union sued to eliminate the waitlists, saying they deprive defendants' right to legal counsel.
Earlier this year, Phelps County Circuit Judge William E. Hickle ruled the waiting lists are unconstitutional and gave the Legislature a July 1 deadline to resolve the issue, the paper reported.
We urge lawmakers to expedite the passage of HB12 — not just to resolve a legal matter, but as a matter of fairness to defendants who cannot afford their own attorneys.