Updated: Dec 29, 2020
JEFFERSON CITY • In order to devote the necessary time to all of the cases it’s responsible for, the state’s public defender office would need to hire an additional 333 attorneys.
There are 349 currently on staff.
The reasons that explain the need to nearly double that number aren’t new. They’re the same ones Michael Barrett, the state’s top public defender, has been sharing with lawmakers for years.
He did so again during a budget hearing on Monday, describing overwhelmed attorneys backlogged with more than 100 cases, unable to spend enough time with their clients.
Plus, he said, with a turnover rate fluctuating between 15 and 20 percent and a starting salary of $39,000, it’s often young, inexperienced lawyers, fresh out of law school, that are left to grapple with such an enormous workload.
But there doesn’t seem to be relief in sight.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens restored $2.5 million in in withheld funding in his proposed spending plan, but it’s still $1 million less than what the Legislature approved last year.
“That’s just going to get us to what the building recommended we have in 2014, of course, which we never got,” Barrett said. “It’s not counting for our 12 percent increase in caseload.”
The funding crisis last year prompted Barrett to appoint former Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat and former attorney general, to handle the case of a poor defendant.
He cited a provision of state law allowing him to delegate such a job to “any member of the state bar in Missouri” in extraordinary circumstances.
Nixon dismissed the move as a political stunt – albeit one that made national headlines – and a judge ruled in August that Barrett acted outside his authority.
Now, Barrett is resigned to the fact that if legislators don’t step in, some tough decisions will have to be made.
“Give us the money and we’ll do our jobs, or if you don’t, because of the budget constraints or whatever, we’ll have to start making cuts,” Barrett said after the hearing Monday.
That could mean closing offices, including its capital division, an expensive branch of the office that handles death penalty cases.
Missouri’s GOP-led Legislature has routinely supported capital punishment and other tough-on-crime policies, but Barrett said something has to give.
“The policies are the province of this building. It’s none of my business. But you’ve got to pay for it,” he explained. “You can’t just send it to us, and hope that our budget is going to black out at the end of the year.
“Policy choices that are made in this building, such as ‘we love the death penalty’ or ‘we love civilly committing sex offenders,’ we’re just not going to be able to do it,” Barrett added.
One suggestion he offered to lawmakers was funding to allow the office to better handle conflict cases, or cases where one crime is committed with multiple defendants.
With enough money in the bank to hire private attorneys to help out, public defenders won’t be forced to trek throughout the state, often stuck waiting hours in courtrooms outside of their jurisdiction, to defend the multiple people involved in one crime.
As for being understaffed, Barrett said every little bit helps.
“Before we get to the conversation of, ‘do you think you’ll get 333 new lawyers?’ Hey, how about ten? Let’s start there,” Barrett said.