In Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court of the United States refers to lawyers in criminal cases as necessities rather than luxuries. That is because without counsel the U.S. Constitution’s Sixth Amendment’s promise to a fair trial is broken.

Gideon requires that states provide defense attorneys for defendants who cannot afford to hire their own attorney. The right to counsel is not simply the presence of a lawyer, but one that provides the defendant with meaningful assistance. This includes representation at pretrial events and an adequate defense at trial.

Unfortunately, the public defender systems in many states fail to fulfill these constitutional requirements.

Since the statewide expansion of Missouri’s public defender system in 1989, the Missouri State Public Defenders (MSPD), has received at least 10 independent evaluations that warned state officials of constitutional violations.

The warnings were ignored for nearly three decades, until the right to counsel became a constitutional crisis in Missouri.

That’s why we sued.

Missouri’s public defender system is underfunded, understaffed, and overworked.

The public defender’s office receives less than one of one percent of the state’s general revenue for funding. Missouri ranks 49 out of 50 for sufficient public defense state funding. The public defender’s office does not have the resources necessary for meaningful representation of their clients.

The attorneys are unable to provide meaningful effort to ensure their defendants are effectively represented with a fair trial.

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.

Only three percent of cases are met with these minimum number of hours for constitutional representation. Public defenders often do not have the opportunity to meet with their clients before their trial to discuss potential witnesses, exculpatory evidence, plea negotiations, or trial strategy.

That’s because there are nearly  112,000  cases  currently  within  Missouri’s  public  defender  system and only 370  lawyers. Every attorney has  hundreds  of  cases.

Every  public  defender  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. 

Being poor and unable to afford an attorney isn’t a crime. If we believe in justice, we must change our justice system.

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