Missouri public defender system hopes changes will alleviate pressure

Friday, September 16, 2011 | 5:55 p.m. CDT; updated 7:19 p.m. CDT, Friday, September 16, 2011

COLUMBIA – The Missouri State Public Defender Office has changed the way it contracts with and oversees private attorneys to reduce the wait time for indigent defendants who need an attorney and increase the monitoring of private attorneys who take cases.

Due to two changes in the contracting program, it now takes no longer than 24 hours to assign an attorney in the majority of cases, said Cat Kelly, director of the Missouri Public Defender System. In addition, four contract coordinators and the system’s deputy director assign private attorneys to cases and oversee their work.

"The main benefit is that it's reducing delay. Some people were sitting in jail for several months," Kelly said. "The second benefit is that we have someone closer to the ground … who has fewer panel attorneys to monitor and can better assess the performance that is being given."

A panel attorney is a private attorney who has agreed to serve the public defender system.

It's been 22 years since the public defender system had enough lawyers to handle the number of cases it received. The gap between capacity and caseload grew through the '90s and "escalated dramatically" from 2000 to 2009, Kelly said.

"We are staffed to handle about 73 percent of the cases we currently have," she said.

For years, the staffing shortage has been somewhat alleviated by hiring private attorneys. But until the changes made in July, assigning a private attorney to a case could take several months, and one employee was responsible for assigning and monitoring private attorneys in approximately 1,700 cases per year.

The 13th District defender office, which represents indigent defendants in Boone County, hired private attorneys for 200 out of 4,548 cases in 2010.

Presiding judge for the 13th Circuit of Boone County, Judge Gary Oxenhandler, said he had not yet noticed a decrease in wait time, but that the change was positive.

"Anything that the public defender's office does or the prosecutor's office does to move our cases along more quickly, more efficiently, I am in favor of," Oxenhandler said.

How it works:

The public defender system hires private attorneys to alleviate caseload and to deal with some cases in which a public defender has a conflict of interest.

According to the public defender system's fiscal year 2010 annual report, a conflict of interest can occur if:

  • the public defender office employing the defender already represents a co-defendant in a case with opposing interests
  • the public defender has represented a victim or key witness in the case
  • there is a personal conflict.

What has changed:

In July, the contract program started assigning attorneys on a rotational basis. When there is a case requiring a private attorney, one is automatically assigned to a case. Prior to that, two methods were used to assign attorneys, neither of which worked well.

Starting in 1989, attorneys were contacted individually to be assigned to a case. The process was time-consuming because attorneys had to confirm they were taking a case and would sometimes not respond quickly, Kelly said.

The defender system then phased in a system of sending out mass emails to all private attorneys who volunteered or contracted with the system. The first attorney to respond to the email would get the case. As a result, some attorneys didn’t get any cases because they weren’t the first ones to respond, Kelly said.

"We used to have to ask (the private attorneys) to take a case. We would get 20 conflicts a day that would have to be contracted," said Dan Gralike, deputy director of the defender's office. "Now we automatically assign these cases to people."

The new method ensures that all private attorneys get an equal share of cases and that defendants do not have to wait to be assigned an attorney.

"We wanted to guarantee that everyone who was interested could get a case without having to wait a long time to see if everyone was available," Kelly said. 

The bigger picture:

Although the defense system's caseload has leveled off in the past few years, that doesn’t mean the crisis in the system has diminished, Kelly said.

"Justice isn't free. Those words on paper in the Constitution or the Hollywood scripts … it takes money to make those real," Kelly said. "We have to make choices: either more public defenders or more private attorneys or fewer cases."

In fiscal year 2011, the public defender system received approximately $35 million from state general revenues, Kelly said. The system would require an additional $9 million to $17 million to adequately handle all the cases it receives, she said. 

"If you believe in the Bill of Rights, then every defendant deserves the same constitutional guarantees as anyone else," Gralike said. "We’re asking for more money to ensure the constitutional rights of the poor."

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