District 13 public defenders end October below mandated caseload cap

Wednesday, October 31, 2012 | 7:15 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA – The District 13 Public Defender's office, which serves Boone and Callaway counties, finished October under its new monthly workload capacity of 1,727 hours. 

Thirteenth Circuit Presiding Judge Gary Oxenhandler updated Boone and Callaway judges about the public defender's workload at a meeting in the law library of the Boone County Courthouse on Wednesday afternoon.

Boone County District Defender David Wallis said the court reassigned several cases to private counsel and this allowed the office to stay under its limit.

October was the first month the office had been required to operate under a monthly caseload cap, according to previous Missourian reports. The limit resulted from a ruling earlier this year by the Missouri Supreme Court that said judges could not assign cases to a public defender if the public defender was already working at capacity. A formula determined the district's office can take on a maximum monthly limit of 1,727 hours.

The case limit mandated by the Missouri Supreme Court poses a problem for the 13th Circuit Court: complying with a person's right to a fair and speedy trial, guaranteed under the Sixth Amendment of the Constitution. If public defenders are overworked, they can't provide effective legal counsel to their clients, which would violate the Sixth Amendment. But a person suspected of a crime is denied the possibility of a speedy trial when public defenders are limited each month to a capped number of clients.

The entire issue of whether public defenders are overburdened came up in an audit of the public defender system released Oct. 10 by State Auditor Tom Schweich's office. The audit found the system didn't have a procedure in place to track the time it spends on cases and couldn't estimate the staff it needs without that information. Schweich said the system used a national standard from 1973, which might overstate workloads. 

The public defender system is revising a time-tracking system they hope to have in place by the end of the year. Once the new system is in place, they will start to collect data and use it to determine the amount of time spent on different types of cases.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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