In the past, we have introduced you to some of the clients who have been denied justice because of an overburdened public defender system. Today, we want to introduce you to a former Missouri public defender.
Chris served as a public defender in Farmington, Mo., a rural area 72 miles southwest of St. Louis. He was a new lawyer at the time, deciding to join the public defender’s office because he wanted to help those who couldn’t afford it. Like many have before, Chris calls his time as a public defender a “trial by fire” because he was expected to learn on the job instead of being supported with the time, resources, and professional mentorship needed to do his job effectively.
Chris was frequently pressured to do more than his typical 10-to-12 hour workday. The emphasis from his superiors was on closing out cases as quickly as possible if they met the American Bar Association’s ethical standards or not. Clients were encouraged to take plea deals regardless of their innocence because it was more expedient.
“I was told that every time I said I needed more training or time: you learn by doing. What no one mentioned is that real people suffered while I tried to figure out how to do the job. It wasn’t that an order was late or a pizza was messed up, it was people went to prison.”
When he left, Chris had a caseload of more than 200.
Today, Chris is a private attorney. He resigned as a public defender because it was taking a massive toll on his health and his family. He also couldn’t bear the guilt of knowing how many times he was forced to fail a client because he didn’t have any other choice.
“On an average day as an attorney now, I see one or two clients. As a public defender, I would see ten. A private attorney can spend their time negotiating a superior plea bargain or taking the case to trial because he or she does not have the caseload a public defender has. Once a person is in the system they will never get out of it and that is much more of a reality for clients of public defenders.”
The Missouri State Public Defender closed 76,752 cases last year at an average cost to the state’s taxpayers of just $325.31 per case.
“[The] astonishingly low cost of indigent defense in Missouri – among the lowest in the nation ‐‐ is not a cause for celebration. It comes at the cost of justice, the result of widespread failure to provide indigent defendants the effective assistance of counsel that the U.S. Constitution’s Bill of Rights guarantees them,” wrote the Public Defender Commission in their Budget Request to the Governor for Fiscal Year 2019. “There is a limit to the ‘Do More with Less’ mantra within the arena of criminal justice, and Missouri passed it some time ago.”
“People seem to think funding the public defender system in Missouri is being ‘nice’ to criminals by giving them something for free that others pay for. What we’re actually doing is protecting the dignity of our clients, not to mention their fundamental, constitutional right to an attorney. Being poor isn’t a crime.”
In a system where public defenders aren’t provided with the funding and capacity to do their job, no one wins. Each year brings an increase in the number of cases brought through the public defender’s office. But the increase in funding and staffing does not match Missouri’s needs and has not for decades.
This is a constitutional crisis. Missouri is forcing public defenders across the state to make a choice: Do the impossible or shortchange justice.