COLUMN: Missouri's public defender system not alone in struggle

Monday, March 22, 2010 | 1:32 p.m. CDT; updated 11:42 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Missouri prosecutors were surprised by Professor David Webber’s recent column regarding the Missouri public defender system. While we are happy to see any increased focus on the criminal justice system, we were surprised to see Professor Webber’s heavy reliance on the results ofreports by the Spangenberg Group in his conclusion that the public defender system is “pitifully underfunded."

The reports issued by the Spangenberg Group have been universally criticized by parties on all sides of this issue. Anyone who has actually reviewed these reports is aware that they lack any significant independent data upon which to form public policy. In fact, a member of the Missouri Bar Board of Governors recently advocated that the Bar seek a refund of its fee paid to the Spangenberg Group due to the poor quality of their research.

Missouri prosecutors are gratified by the recent enhanced attention to the criminal justice system by the Missouri Bar. Many issues that plague public defenders are parallel to issues plaguing prosecutors’ offices across the state. Therefore, we are hopeful that such attention can lead to much needed reforms across the entire system.

Missouri prosecutors, more than any other stakeholder, greatly value a high functioning public defender system. Prosecutors take seriously the constitutional right of defendants to be provided a competent defense. In addition, a poorly functioning public defender system makes our job as prosecutors much more difficult. Anyone who has ever tried a case against an unprepared opponent knows the difficulty and uncertainty that will invariably arise at trial. In our efforts to hold violent criminals accountable for their acts, the last thing we need is the specter of increased appellate reversals based on ineffective assistance of counsel. Victims of crime deserve a stable, certain and predictable justice system. This can only be accomplished if all parties are performing at high levels of advocacy.

Professor Webber states that the Missouri criminal justice system is facing an “underfunded constitutional right” due to the failure of the public defender system. We are pleased to report that while this statement is certainly compelling, it simply does not reflect the reality that we see in courtrooms across Missouri each day. It appears that many trial court judges share our view on this point. If Professor Webber’s alarming allegations were accurate, one would expect to see a dramatic increase in post-conviction relief based on ineffective assistance of counsel in public defender cases.

On the contrary, our research demonstrates that conviction reversals due to ineffective assistance of public defenders continue to be very rare. There have been no conviction reversals for ineffective assistance of counsel during the last five years in many of the major volume circuits where public defenders have the highest caseloads. This seems to indicate the opposite of Professor Webber’s conclusion: Missouri’s public defenders are an effective group of attorneys who professionally and effectively represent their clients.

There is certainly no question that the entire criminal justice system needs additional resources. Right now, an already financially challenged judiciary is facing a budget reduction of $3.2 million. State-provided funding for child support enforcement by prosecutors is being cut by $2 million. Public defenders are not alone in their struggle for resources.

Missouri prosecutors firmly believe that any crisis in the criminal justice system involves all facets of the system: prosecutors, public defenders, judges and the private bar. We urge policy makers to develop solutions based on legitimate, objective data, and not on the discredited Spangenberg Group reports. Making decisions that best support the goals of a healthy, well-funded criminal justice system that properly serves victims, defendants, taxpayers and the constitutions of both the United States and the State of Missouri will serve all constituents well.

Dean Dankelson is president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

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