GUEST COMMENTARY: Court rules add to public defender overload

Wednesday, November 14, 2012 | 3:50 p.m. CST

As an attorney I have the obligation of pro bono service. How that public service, or service for the benefit of the public, is delivered has been left to the discretion of individual attorneys for a couple of decades.

Now, because the legislature has turned what used to be minor crimes into felonies, such as being cited for driving without a valid operators license three times in your lifetime, attorneys are receiving more work.

Sentencing for this and certain other minor offenses appears designed to deny working class citizens their gun and voting rights,illustrating the over-criminalization of minor misconduct within Missouri.

In our own judicial circuit we have a rule that substantially delays felony dispositions. Most everywhere else in Missouri, when the prosecutor and the defense lawyer achieve a plea bargain to resolve the pending charge, 98 percent of the time the court follows that joint recommendation.

In Boone and Callaway counties, no plea bargains are possible by local court rule. Instead plea recommendations occur and after the plea, a Sentencing Assessment Report is ordered. Probation officers who would otherwise be supervising their charges in the community spend a significant portion of their time compiling these reports for the court. In the resulting six to eight week delay from plea to sentencing, the ongoing case remains open and both the prosecutor and defense lawyer continue to work. After the report is completed, more than 95 percent of the time, the plea recommendations are followed and that sentence is imposed.

The mistrust this process casts on the prosecutors’ ability to fairly assess the merits of the case and what the facts and justice require on behalf of the government substantially increases the workload in felony cases.

Anecdotal estimations of this local rule range from 12 percent to 20 percent.

When our government orders attorneys into “involuntary servitude” because it doesn’t want to fully fund a public defender system, when it has previously empowered prosecutors to overcriminalize minor misconduct and local court acts inefficiently with regard to felony dispositions, a different approach is required. For these and other reasons, I find myself disturbed by the prospect of involuntary servitude to rectify the correctable choices of institutional actors.

Stephen Wyse is a Columbia attorney at Wyse Law Firm.

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