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Study: Missouri's public defenders overworked

Monday, August 18, 2014 | 5:33 p.m. CDT; updated 8:47 p.m. CDT, Monday, August 18, 2014

KANSAS CITY — A new American Bar Association study repeats what others have said in the past: Missouri's publicly funded criminal defense lawyers are so overworked that it could raise constitutional issues because defendants are not getting enough attention from their attorneys.

But some state prosecutors are questioning whether public defenders are any more overworked than everyone else in the court system, The Kansas City Star reported.

The state's 376 attorneys represent more than 98 percent of poor defendants charged in Missouri with state crimes, and consultants have warned for years that Missouri was operating a "constitutionally inadequate" public defender system.

The ABA study found that public defenders are unable to spend enough time with their clients to provide "reasonably effective" representation. It's time to stop studying the problem and start fixing it, ABA president William Hubbard said.

"This is an example of well-documented research," Hubbard said. "It has national implications, and that's why the ABA put its name behind it."

Michael Barrett, the general counsel for the Missouri Public Defender system, said the state would need to hire another 289 lawyers to meet the standards set out in the ABA study.

"We understand that number is a big leap, and the legislature may view it as unrealistic," Barrett said. "Our focus is simply on taking a realistic step forward."

The caseload has already prompted Springfield courts to create a pool of private practice lawyers who took over cases when public defenders were too busy. And specialized juvenile offices in Kansas City and St. Louis were closed so staff and caseloads could be redistributed.

But in 2010 and 2012, the National Center for State Courts and the Missouri state auditor criticized the methods and the data used by the public defender system for calculating the maximum caseloads its lawyers should be permitted to carry. State prosecutors also have questioned the workload complaints.

Platte County Prosecutor Eric Zahnd, a past president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, said his colleagues remain skeptical that public defenders are facing a "caseload crisis."

"Is everybody working hard?" Zahnd asked. "Sure, everyone is working hard. But public defenders are no more overworked than our prosecutors, our (court) clerks and our judges."

The U.S. Constitution guarantees adequate legal representation to anyone charged in a criminal case that could send the defendant to prison or jail, Hubbard noted.

"It's important that both sides are represented adequately in matters of liberty," Hubbard said. "We're not talking about a political issue. We're talking about a fundamental constitutional issue."


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