Missouri public defender offices face caseload crunch

Sunday, August 15, 2010 | 6:10 p.m. CDT

JOPLIN — Local public defender offices across Missouri are facing an overload of cases involving indigent defendants — but with little additional state funding available.

The Joplin Globe reports that the office serving Jasper, Newton and McDonald counties in southwest Missouri is in a state of "pending unavailability." The Carthage office that serves the 29th and 40th judicial districts notified judges and prosecutors in February it was exceeding its caseload limit.

"We're still above capacity," said Darren Wallace, the district defender.

Thirteen other public defender offices in Missouri have issued notices of "impending unavailability," including two — in Springfield and Troy — that have been certified by the Missouri State Public Defender's Office as exceeding caseload limits and closed to new clients.

Wallace said the Carthage office is still opening cases for all approved applications, but its 15 public defenders are exceeding the recommended limit set by a Department of Justice national advisory panel for case hours per month.

"It's really up to the courts to fashion a remedy that provides the accused person entitled to counsel with an attorney who has the time and resources to provide competent representation," said Peter Sterling, general counsel with the state public defender's office.

After Springfield announced in late July that it was closed to new clients, a Christian County judge ruled the office must represent eligible defendants who were charged with criminal offenses during the period when the office wasn't accepting applications.

The judge said defendants who could not afford an attorney were having their constitutional rights violated by not being able to get a public defender from that office.

The public defenders will ask a state court of appeals to set aside that ruling, and Sterling said it will be appealed to the Missouri Supreme Court if necessary.

At a meeting of judges, prosecutors and defenders earlier this year regarding the Carthage office, it was decided that some juvenile cases would be referred to private attorneys.

Even with that relief, the office has been operating above capacity, Wallace said.

"We're not trying to make more money or get less work," he said. "We're trying to provide the services that need to be provided."

The Missouri State Public Defender's office received an additional $500,000 appropriation this year, but Gov. Jay Nixon held half of that back because of budget restraints.

The other $250,000 was used to hire additional support staff, Sterling said. He said public defender offices have been so understaffed that public defenders have been forced to spend much of their time performing routine office tasks.

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