In a few weeks, I'll be heading down to Missouri to do a training program on jury selection at the public defender's office. Unfortunately, through no fault of the office or the dedicated people who work there, the public defender system is struggling. My good friend Jeff Sherr who is the training director for the Kentucky Department of Public Advocacy send me a recent article that reported that Missouri ranks 47th in public defense funding, and that caseloads there are soaring 80 percent above standard (a standard, mind you set by John Ashcroft). The office hasn't been given money for new lawyers in over 5 years.
Although Missouri’s code of ethics for lawyers prohibits accepting new clients if doing so would compromise the quality of representation an attorney can provide, public defenders cannot refuse to accept cases assigned to them.
“The law keeps piling on the cases,” Robinson said. “You still have the same ethical duties, but there’s no way to say no.”
For example, in an office in Hannibal, four attorneys, one secretary and an investigator handled 1,692 criminal cases spread over six counties last year. That adds up to 423 cases per attorney, 80 percent more than the recommended annual caseload.
“I always fear I’m not spending enough time to be as thoroughly prepared as I should be,” said Hannibal District Defender Raymond Legg, who often works 12-hour days. “It’s crisis management. I’m running from courthouse to courthouse, jail to jail.”
The typical public defender working in the trial division, which does not include death penalty or appellate cases, Robinson said, can afford to spend an average of five hours and 38 minutes on each case, based on dividing the number of cases by total attorney work hours. Almost half of all cases represented by a public defender result in a guilty plea. Only 786 trials came out of last year’s closed caseload of 84,801.
“We would hope there would be more trials,” Robinson said, but they take more of attorneys’ time. “They have a whole file cabinet of clients they have to worry about.”
It is high time for the legislature to step up and fix this problem.