JEFFERSON CITY — A bill that would transfer the majority of cases from the Missouri State Public Defender system to private attorneys was greeted with both support and skepticism at a House committee hearing Wednesday.
The bill would require the Public Defender system to contract out all cases in which a person was charged with a nonsexual Class C or D felony, a traffic violation or a probation violation.
Cat Kelly, director of the Missouri State Public Defender system, said the move would reduce the system's caseload by about three quarters.
The sponsor, Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia, said the bill needed to be passed because in 2012 the Missouri Supreme Court allowed some public defender offices to stop accepting cases because of case overload. But few witnesses or committee members seemed sold on the proposed legislation.
Cat Kelly said that contracting out 61,000 of the 84,000 cases per year the Public Defender system handles would free up about $20 million for contracting. But with the system's current contracting rates, another $10 million would be needed to pay the private attorneys.
The Public Defender system contracts out cases when there is a conflict of interest.
One of the witnesses testifying in favor of the bill, Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd, president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said that a different method of assigning cases could actually result in savings. Private attorneys could contract to work on cases in bulk and be paid less per case as a result, he said.
Public defenders are paid by the hour, and private attorneys would be paid per case.
For Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, a former circuit judge in Boone County, that raised the question of whether private attorneys would have a financial incentive to not take cases to trial.
"It's bad policy to set up a structure whereby a questionable ethical decision is reinforced by a financial motive," Chris Kelly said.
Speaking after the hearing, Zahnd differed with Kelly's assessment. He said that both private criminal defense attorneys and public defenders already have an incentive to seek plea bargains to avoid lengthy and costly court trials, though they are trusted to be ethical.
Cat Kelly voiced another concern about the bill. She said it doesn't address how private attorneys would pay for additional costs such as depositions, expert witnesses and consultants.
Chris Kelly was also apprehensive about making dramatic changes to the Public Defender system without first testing to see if the changes would have unintended consequences.
"We change a whole system, and if we're wrong, we create a catastrophe," he said, suggesting instead that the changes be tested through a pilot program.
A total of nine people testified for or against the bill, which the committee still has to vote on before it goes to the House floor.
Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.