It's not often that a newspaper really steps up on behalf of indigent criminal defendants and their lawyers, but the Kansas City Star did just that. In an editorial yesterday, the star noted: "Missouri must stop starving its public defender system. The state-financed network has received no funding increase for five years. Meanwhile, the number and complexity of cases keep increasing."
The newspaper also properly observed that "Lawmakers have more than doubled the number of “deadly sins” for which convicts must serve at least 85 percent of their prison sentences. They also have decreed longer terms for repeat offenders. More severe penalties demand more work from defense attorneys. Meanwhile, public defenders also must represent indigent defendants in cases as minor as bad checks, if they involve the possibility of prison."
Missouri’s public defenders average 298 cases a year. Because of staffing shortages, they often must take on clerical tasks as well as legal work. The starting salary is $33,792, and the highest pay a lawyer can receive is $52,452. In comparison, first-year associates at some of Missouri’s large law firms command salaries of $90,000 or more a year. In Jackson County, a senior trial lawyer in the prosecutor’s office can earn $90,000.
I've taught and lectured several times at public defender conferences in Missouri, and I can tell you that that there are many wonderful, beautiful people all across that state who are devoted and dedicated to their clients and their craft. They deserve far better than their state is providing--and so do their clients.
A vigorous defense function is a critical element of a fair system. The dedicated public defenders of Missouri should be compensated at least as well as those prosecuting their clients, and their caseloads need to come down to the kinds of manageable levels that allow them to defend their clients in the kind of compassionate, thoughtful way they deserve.