JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to what backers called a triage effort for a public defender system in crisis.
Under the bill now headed to Gov. Jay Nixon, the state Public Defender Commission would be allowed to set maximum caseload standards for the lawyers who represent people who are accused of crimes but cannot afford a private attorney.
The commission also could contract with private attorneys to handle the excess cases if there is available money.
When caseload limits have been exceeded and there isn't additional money for contract defenders, the state would establish a waiting list for defendants to be assigned a lawyer.
Public defender offices in Columbia, Jefferson City and Springfield had been turning away clients because of high caseloads. But a state appeals court last month struck down a state regulation allowing public defenders with high caseloads to opt out of cases.
Earlier this year, Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith warned lawmakers during a joint session that if the state doesn't do something about the public defender system, eventually some criminal defendants could go free because they had to wait too long for a trial.
Rep. Tim Jones, a bill sponsor, said Thursday the measure is an attempted "triage" that helps bring attention to the issue.
"It's probably not going to fix everything, but it is a step in the right direction," said Jones, R-Eureka.
Many of the proposed changes to the public defender system came out of a special legislative committee that was charged with studying the issue in 2006.
Sen. Jack Goodman, who led that committee, is the lead sponsor of the legislation. Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, earlier this year called the overloaded public defender system "the biggest threat Missouri is facing as far as the operation of our justice system and the effort for confinement of the guilty."
Goodman and Stith said one solution would be to increase state funding for the public defender system, but that has been difficult to do because of lean budgets.
The indigent are eligible to be represented by a public defender when charged with a misdemeanor that probably will lead to a jail sentence. The legislation would allow the trials to proceed without a public defender if prosecutors are not pursuing any jail time.
Missouri isn't the only state in the U.S. facing public defender system problems.
In Florida, Miami-Dade County has proposed refusing to accept new cases for lesser felonies, but that idea is tied up in appeals. 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.
The Missouri House endorsed the proposed public defender changes 139-16, and the Senate approved it 32-0. Most of the House opposition centered on concerns that it could burden county prosecutors.
Rep. Scott Lipke, a former assistant prosecutor, said he's concerned about the autonomy granted to the Public Defender Commission and the potential financial burden for counties. Lipke, R-Jackson, unsuccessfully tried to strip out a provision in the public defender bill that would add photographs, records and electronic files to the documents that prosecutors must turn over to public defenders for free.