Missouri Bar task force publishes recommendations for public defender funding

Friday, February 1, 2013 | 7:38 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Bar Criminal Justice Task Force endorsed limiting public defender representation in some cases, as part of a list of recommendations published Friday for the state funding of the public defender system.

It also suggested that contracting private attorneys might be an efficient method for representing indigent defendants — people accused of a crime who can't afford to hire an attorney — when public defenders are unable to take on more cases.

The task force hopes these recommendations will guide legislators through a difficult time for the Missouri criminal justice system. The Missouri State Public Defender System and other criminal justice agencies have been under pressure to find a solution to what the public defender system calls a caseload and funding crisis.

“(These recommendations) will give us a chance to get things to a more sustainable level in the meantime, while we examine what kind of changes, if any, are necessary,” said Missouri Bar president Pat Starke, who founded the task force.

The group also recommended that public defenders be allowed to seek caseload relief, but only when courts are able to vet those claims.

Eric Zahnd, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys and a member of the task force, said the most important recommendation, in his opinion, was that attorneys be contracted for some low-level cases that public defenders cannot take on.

“In my opinion, the Public Defender System is broken,” Zahnd said. "Our duty is not just to represent crime victims and the citizens of the state of Missouri but also to see that the rights of criminal defendants are protected as well.”

Starke praised the task force members for coming to a decision relatively quickly. The group included representatives of public defenders, prosecutors, private attorneys and judges.

“It is a real credit to all of the volunteers,” Starke said. “Everyone was at the table and nobody got anything rammed down their throat.”

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