COLUMBIA — The Missouri State Public Defender System announced a statewide hiring freeze Monday.
Low turnover rates, combined with a consistent lack of funding, have left the system unable to afford any new lawyers for this fiscal year, which ends in July 2009.
Usually, low turnover is a good thing. But lower turnover means that the system has more experienced lawyers, who earn more than new lawyers. Turnover rates are now at 2 percent, the lowest they’ve been in 20 years, according to Cathy Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. The system is used to turnover rates of 12 percent to 14 percent. There are 350 lawyers working in the Missouri public defender system.
Kelly said that when system administrators realized in July that funding payroll would be a problem, promotions — the mechanism by which public defenders receive raises — were frozen. But the measure wasn’t enough to alleviate the funding crunch.
In October, in an effort to lighten the burden on overworked public defenders, the system announced it would start refusing certain kinds of cases, depending on jurisdiction.
Also in October, the public defender system submitted a supplemental budget request of $1,308,831, which would be “a stopgap measure to keep the public defender system operating … so they don’t need to start rejecting cases,” said Skip Walther, president-elect of the Missouri Bar Association, which lobbies for money for the system and promotes pro bono defense work by its members. “But that is a stop gap. It’s going to require a lot more money than the state has previously been willing to allocate to this.”
The public defender system won’t find out if it will get the supplemental funding until January or February. If the extra money is granted, the system would not receive it until April, Kelly said.
The request comes at a time when the state is expecting a downturn in state revenues and budget cuts of up to 25 percent for state agencies and institutions. Walther hopes that Governor-elect Jay Nixon will be more sensitive to the problems of the public defender system, though he knows Nixon will have to deal with the budget crisis when he takes office.
Overworked public defenders who let down their clients can cost taxpayers more in the long run in the form of expensive, time-consuming appeals, said Keith Burkes, executive director of the Missouri Bar.
“If the work is done as well as possible in the first instance, then the less likely it is that appeals will be successful and trials will have to be done all over,” he said.
Burkes said that the Bar has re-hired the Spangenberg Group to conduct another study of the Missouri public defender system. A 2005 Spangenberg Group study showed that Missouri was the only state that failed to increase public defender funding for five years, and that its budget needed to be increased by $16 million in order to meet the average per capita spending on indigent defense of the rest of the southern states.
The study also found that Missouri ranked 47th in per capita spending on defense.
“This is a crisis,” Walther said. “And while most people are not particularly sympathetic to criminal defendants, if we are to honor our constitution, which provides a right to counsel, then we as a state need to give that promise life.”