JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith urged lawmakers Wednesday to increase spending for the state's public defender system, saying it's a matter of public safety.
Delivering the annual State of the Judiciary address to the House and Senate, Stith noted that Missouri ranks last in the nation for per capita funding for public defenders. She warned that if the situation isn't fixed, some defendants could end up waiting too long for trial until a public defender is available. A recent court case held that defendants can be released if their trial is delayed because of an underfunded public defender system.
"If not corrected, defendants potentially could be set free without going to trial," she said.
Some local offices of the Missouri Public Defender Commission already are turning away clients because their caseloads are so high.
In an interview after her roughly half-hour speech, Stith said the solution is to hire more public defenders and estimated it would take $5 million to $10 million in additional funding.
"We really need more bodies," Stith said. "We need more public defenders."
Missouri also has paid private attorneys to represent indigent defendants. And in her address to the Legislature, Stith specifically praised efforts in Springfield to train and recruit private attorneys who volunteer to work on probation revocation cases when no other charges are pending.
A special legislative committee that studied problems with the public defender system in 2006 had proposed redirecting most misdemeanor cases to private attorneys, easing the burden on the state public defenders to devote more time to those charged with more serious crimes.
Lawmakers also suggested creating a new fund to pay for private attorneys for misdemeanors, bad-check cases and some probation violations.
Sen. Jack Goodman, who led the special committee, said the public defender system is in "crisis" and that is hurting defendants and crime victims, who now must wait longer for justice and face more uncertainty when convictions are appealed. Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, said that because public defenders are so overworked, appeals about the quality of legal advice are more likely to succeed.
"It is the biggest threat Missouri is facing as far as the operation of our justice system and the effort for confinement of the guilty," he said.
Missouri's isn't the only public defender system in the U.S. that faces problems.
In Florida, Miami-Dade County has proposed refusing to accept new cases for lesser felonies, but that idea is tied up in appeals. And in Georgia, the defendant in a death penalty case went without a lawyer for eight months because the state public defenders' agency couldn't pay for one.
But Rep. Scott Lipke, the chairman of the House Crime Prevention Committee and a former prosecutor, said he doesn't think Missouri's problems are as immediate as states that have been forced to release defendants.
He suggested eliminating jail as a possible sentence for certain misdemeanors, saying that would alleviate the need for a public defender in such cases.
"I don't want us to get to the point where we are forced to do something," Lipke said.
Stith described the court's role and responsibilities and also urged lawmakers to re-approve a $7 filing fee that's used to help support technology efforts.
What the chief justice didn't mention Wednesday was noteworthy, too: a proposed salary increases for judges and a dispute about how some urban trial judges and all appellate jurists are picked.
A special citizens' committee that recommends salary increases for judges has proposed raises matching whatever state employees get, plus a $1,500 boost for associated judges — to lessen the gap between salaries for circuit and associate circuit judges. Gov. Jay Nixon's budget recommends a 3 percent increase for state workers.
The House voted Monday to reject the pay hikes. Under a 2006 constitutional amendment, two-thirds of the Senate would need to vote against the raises by Saturday to block the increases.
The other controversy Stith didn't mention had to do with the special nominating committees that select some judges. The committees forward three finalists to the governor who then selects one for the bench.
Some lawmakers and other critics contend that the process is too secretive and that the governor should have more say in who ends up as judges.