‘The history of providing defense counsel for indigent defendants in Missouri is replete with claims of inadequate resources’

Jefferson City – Judge William E. Hickle orders Missouri to provide counsel to defendants in criminal cases in time to assist the accused person with critical stages of the process like bail or bond hearings – at a minimum, counsel must be provided within two weeks of qualifying for court-appointed counsel. The decision came after a trial in the lawsuit filed on behalf of a class of defendants by the American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, the ACLU of Missouri, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe.

In November 2019, there were more than 5,800 cases on Missouri Office of State Public Defender’s (MSPD) waiting lists, involving 16 different MSPD district defender offices. Cases were pending in 29 counties with nearly 600 people waiting for counsel for over one year from the initial determination of indigency, 1,546 people waiting for six months, 1,916 people waiting for five months, and 2,273 people waiting for four months.

“The Missouri Constitution guarantees those facing criminal charges the right to an attorney,” said Tony Rothert, Director of Integrated Advocacy at the ACLU of Missouri. “When county prosecutors decide to flood the system with thousands of cases, that choice requires the Legislature to come up with more funding to provide counsel, or to shrink the system by decriminalizing offenses that are not necessary to protect public safety.”

Missouri’s notorious practice of placing accused people on a waitlist left them to navigate the important stages of their cases on their own. Judge Hickle found that some languished in jail for months and, in some cases, over a year without an attorney only to be released when counsel finally joined them in court. Those who wait in pretrial detention without counsel do so without the opportunity to build a defense while witness’ memories fade and evidence goes stale.

The judge's order mandates that once a person is qualified for court-appointed counsel, the State must provide them with an attorney within no more than two weeks. Hickle concluded that the right to an attorney exists for bail hearings or to help accused people decide whether to ask for a change in venue.

"For decades, Missouri’s public defender system has been over-worked and under-funded,” said Amy Breihan, Co-Director of the MacArthur Justice Center’s Missouri office. “This decision is a solid step in the right direction of ensuring even the poorest residents have competent legal counsel when charged with a crime because justice deferred is justice denied.”

The impact of the unconstitutional practice of leaving defendants to languish on a waitlist extends beyond the courtroom. People often lose jobs, housing, and any financial stability they had, as well as regular contact with their families.

“None of our constitutional rights belong on waiting lists, and when people’s physical liberty is at stake, we must be especially vigilant in protecting those rights,” said Jason Williamson, Executive Director of the Center on Race, Inequality, and the Law at NYU School of Law, formerly Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project. “The court did the right thing in this case, ensuring that the right to a rigorous defense is not reserved only for those who can pay for it.”

Read the full decision.