As the Missouri legislature ended its 2018 session, one of the last items on the docket was the state budget for next year.
We followed this with interest, in part, to see if Missouri would take the opportunity to address the longstanding deficit of funding toward the Missouri State Public Defender – the attorneys who defend our justice system by providing legal counsel to anyone who cannot afford it.
In the final budget, Missouri Public Defender System was granted $49,613,083 for 2019, an increase of $4 million over last year. Great news, right?
The public defender office asked for $75,392,296 in order to ethically meet the demand for their services.
The difference between the state budget and recommended budget is staggering. The shortfall of $26 million jeopardizes each and every one of the nearly 112,000 cases currently within Missouri’s public defender system.
The American Bar Association sets minimum requirements for the amount of time lawyers should invest in case preparation to guarantee clients have ethical and adequate representation. There are 370 lawyers in the Missouri public defender system – each lawyer has to carry an individual load of hundreds of cases.
Every lawyer would have to work more than 24 hours a day, every day of the year, to meet the minimum guidelines required for their cases in Missouri.
Tens of thousands of individuals are effectively denied their constitutional right to representation simply because they cannot afford a private attorney. The state of Missouri’s consistent failure to provide the Missouri State Public Defender with a realistic budget forces attorneys within the system into unwinnable ethical and constitutional quandaries – consciously providing ineffective representation and encouraging plaintiffs to take pleas or waiting lists without talking to a lawyer.
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.”
The state-approved budget for The Missouri State Public Defender Office illustrates what's wrong with the system. Decades of consistent underfunding and chronic understaffing forces public defenders into an impossible decision: serve their clients or knowingly disregard their constitutional rights.