Kansas City Star Steps Up...

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for putting this on your blog and for your kind words about Missouri PD's. I am one of the public defenders Missouri is currently starving out. The attitudes we encounter from judges, PA's and the public are even worse than the pay (but you already knew that). My coworkers are among the finest criminal defense attorneys in the area - dedicated, intelligent and compassionate. We have become pretty good typists and fair at filing, too. You could not pay or respect me enough to leave them. But it sure is getting hard to persuade new attorneys to join us here in the trenches. Yes, we are indeed over-supplied with petty "crimes" that can lead to imprisonment. For instance, in Missouri, "littering" can carry up to a year in jail. A conviction for littering can lead to a felony down the road, if you don't have a driver's license. The driving while suspended statute makes DWS a felony if you have enough "other offenses" of any kind. My suggestions: pay us a living wage and make a long list of petty crimes into fine-only offenses that cannot be used to enhance other offenses.Again, thanks for thinking of us.