KANSAS CITY — Missouri's criminal justice system continues to be threatened by severely overtaxed public defenders, according to a new study.
Missouri's public defender system has "an overwhelming caseload crisis" that has pushed the state's criminal justice system "to the brink of collapse," said the study issued Friday by the Spangenberg Group and the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va.
There has been little improvement since a similar study was done in 2005, it said.
Public defenders represent those unable to afford their own attorneys. Offices throughout the state routinely report the attorneys have twice their recommended maximum workloads.
The study noted that Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 states in per-capita spending on indigent defense.
"For close to a decade, (the public defender system) has received no substantial increase in appropriations, despite the fact that year by year, (the system) has submitted budgets demonstrating that it is seriously underfunded and overloaded with cases," the study concluded.
"All three branches of government are on notice that Missouri has been operating a constitutionally inadequate system for some time now."
Earlier this year, Laura Denvir Stith, then chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court, warned that "vast numbers" of inmates may have to be released from jail because public defenders can't try their cases soon enough.
A state appeals court earlier this year rejected a Public Defender Commission rule that set a maximum caseload and allowed local offices to turn away defendants charged with lesser offenses such as traffic violations or misdemeanors.
In response to that ruling, state lawmakers approved a bill that would have freed public defenders from representing people when prosecutors were not seeking jail time. It also would have authorized the commission to create caseload limits and allowed courts to place defendants on waiting lists when those limits were reached.
But Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill in July, saying the caseload limits and waiting lists could shift more work to courts and prosecutors and burden criminal defendants and victims. Nixon said he was committed to finding more resources to help the criminal justice system work more efficiently.