ST. LOUIS — Missouri's largest county has been warned that the state public defender system may soon stop taking new criminal cases.
Cat Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, said Thursday that St. Louis County is on notice because public defenders are overworked and underfunded. The system claims its St. Louis County office is working at 160 percent capacity.
"It's just too many cases," Kelly said. "We need either more people or fewer cases, and actually, a combination of the two is probably needed. If you pulled out all the misdemeanor cases, we'd still be overloaded."
But St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch called the warning a contrived ploy. He planned to ask Gov. Jay Nixon and state Auditor Susan Montee on Thursday for a performance audit of the public defender system.
"First, they're trying to get more money out of the state," McCulloch said. "They're trying to get less work for themselves. And what they're really trying to do is slow the system to a crawl" to help delay clients from going to jail.
Missouri public defenders represent clients who can't afford private attorneys and face state charges that could carry jail time. Officials have warned for years that the system is overburdened.
Kelly said the public defender system is in crisis around the state as criminal case workloads continue to increase. The state has 370 public defenders. Kelly said another 177 are needed.
Two offices — Springfield and Troy — have already stopped taking new clients through the end of the month because of heavy caseloads, and Kelly said St. Louis County is among about 40 other counties that have been warned new cases could be put on hold. Others include large counties such as Cole, Boone, Platte and Jefferson.
What happens if the public defender system stops taking new clients is uncertain. Kelly said the courts could delay criminal cases until an attorney can be assigned. But she said that makes the problem progressively worse and forces the office to stop taking new cases earlier each month.
Kelly added that people could spend more time in jail while waiting to be assigned a public defender, though it is possible that the courts could use other methods to resolve the cases.
Lawmakers last year approved a bill to let the Public Defender Commission set up maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists to be assigned a lawyer. The bill also would have allowed trials to proceed for misdemeanor offenses without a public defender if prosecutors did not pursue any jail time.
Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it could have shifted more work to courts and prosecutors and burdened defendants and crime victims.
A 2009 study by the Spangenberg Group and the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., said Missouri's public defender system has "an overwhelming caseload crisis" that has pushed the criminal justice system "to the brink of collapse."
But McCulloch said the crisis is "made up" because the public defender system has set its own "arbitrary" limits on workload.
"You represent a client when that client needs you," he said, "not when you feel you've got the time."