Fed up with what they say is “reprehensible” underfunding, Missouri public defenders are calling out their governor by forcing the man they blame for a lack of resources to take a case of his own.
The state’s top public defender laid out his grievances in a letter to Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon: A vetoed bill that would have lightened public defenders’ caseloads. Repeated budget cuts. Unfairly withholding money allotted to the office.
Using a power granted to him in a single line of state law, Missouri’s top public defender appointed Nixon as attorney for a central Missouri man charged with assault. But the decision has little to do with the man’s case — it’s an attention-grabbing cry for help in a state where public defenders have long said they are overworked and underfunded.
“Given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it,” Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, wrote in a letter to the governor.
Missouri law allows the director of the public defender’s office to appoint a member of the state bar — any member — to represent someone who can’t afford a private lawyer. In theory, Barrett said, the law was created so that people’s constitutional right to a defense could be fulfilled even during hard times.
For the public defender’s office, he said, that hard time is happening right now.
“When you’re in dire straits, you have to use all the tools available to you,” he told the Post.
As far as Barrett knows, it’s the first time anyone has called upon a governor to serve as a public defender. It may seem extreme, he said, but it’s necessary to bring attention to what he calls a “reprehensible” lack of funding.
Despite a $4.5 million budget increase granted by the Missouri legislature in June — much less than the $23.1 million requested by the public defender’s office — the office doesn’t have enough money to meet costs, Barrett said. Certainly not enough to hire the 270 additional attorneys the state needs, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Barrett hadn’t heard from Nixon by late Wednesday night, and the governor did not respond to requests for comment from The Post or any other media outlet.
In Missouri, public defenders often juggle more than a hundred cases at a time, Barrett said. And when a colleague leaves (the office has a 15 percent turnover rate) their caseload is distributed to those who remain. In the past year, the office’s 376 attorneys handled upward of 82,000 cases — an increase of almost 12 percent over 2014, Barrett said.
The workload causes them to spend far less time on each case than is recommended by the American Bar Association. For example, the association recommends attorneys spend about 12 hours on each misdemeanor case. On average, Missouri public defenders spend two.
But at the center of all the funding and policy arguments are tens of thousands of low-income people who are shorted on their constitutional right to legal counsel, Barrett said.
“The only thing that binds us as Americans is what is afforded us under the Bill of Rights,” Barrett said. “People may not have good schools, good jobs or basic necessities. But they are afforded liberty. It’s my job to make sure that before that liberty is taken away they are afforded a competent defense.”
Low-income people charged with crimes — who are disproportionately people of color — bear the brunt of the problem when public defenders are forced to do more with less, according to a study by the Justice Policy Institute. When court-appointed lawyers don’t have enough time to spend on with cases, those who can’t afford a private lawyer wait longer for trial and get longer prison sentences and harsher plea deals.
It’s what some advocates call “assembly-line justice:” handling each case in the most cost- and time-effective manner at the expense of pursuing what is best for the accused.
It’s unknown how (or whether) Nixon will handle the case.
And the man whom the governor is expected to represent?
“I need to track the guy down and let him know what’s coming,” Barrett said.