A report released late Monday on the state’s struggling public defender system calls for reforms that include raising the base salaries of public defenders, reducing their case loads and offering a student loan forgiveness program.
The Senate interim committee on the Missouri State Public Defender System, a five-member committee that includes Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, was formed last year to address the findings of an independent consulting group that found the state’s indigent defense system to be “on the verge of collapse.”
“This is a long time coming, and we are very excited about the legislature confirming what we and the Missouri Bar have said,” said Marty Robinson, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System. “(Salaries are) a very serious problem in indigent defense in the state of Missouri.”
Even at the level of Assistant Public Defender IV — the highest level a public defender can attain — the average salary of slightly above $50,000 poses a barrier to recruitment and retention of public defenders, Robinson said. Annual pay for public defenders in Missouri ranges from $33.792 to $52,452, he said.
“In terms of the legal profession, that is not necessarily enough to retain people,” Robinson said. “You add insult to injury by having a low salary and high case load and may not be able to provide the representation a client deserves. We shouldn’t be surprised that we lose people.”
The 13-page report does not specify how much salaries should be raised or a time line for implementing the proposed changes. The committee’s chairman, Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mount Vernon, said Tuesday that the report was just the beginning and that he plans to meet with state committees to discuss specifics.
“The heavy lifting still has to be done,” he said.
The committee held three hearings last year and heard from public defenders, private attorneys, a judge and the president of the Missouri Bar Association about the state of the system.
Missouri ranks 47th in state funding for its defender system and is the only state to have not received a funding increase in five years, according to the report by The Spangenburg Group that drew statewide attention to the system’s problems.
The report cited the need for increased funding to hire additional support staff; the need to reduce case loads to help retain attorneys; and the need to divert nonfelonies to private attorneys. Such cases account for about 50 percent of cases on an average public defender’s case load, according to the 2006 Public Defender Office’s Annual Report.
Contracting out these services might make it possible for public defenders to return to the 235 mixed case load limit set by then-Gov. John Ashcroft in 1989. The average case load for Missouri public defenders is now 289, Robinson said.
The legislative committee’s report also proposes a student loan forgiveness program, which would help in the recruitment of new lawyers, as well as help retain those already serving in the public sector.
“Students’ loans are a big deal,” Robinson said. “It is already a relatively low salary coupled with a burdensome debt. It is hard to climb out of that.”
Graham said that as a committee member, he was especially attracted to the idea of public defenders using more video and teleconferencing with clients to cut down on “windshield time” — the countless hours public defenders spend driving from place to place to visit and advise clients. Robinson said he would meet with state senators this week to further discuss the committee’s recommendations.
“I think we are at a critical crossroads,” he said. “In the last couple of years, there has been considerable media attention, legislative attention, and the Missouri Bar has paid attention to the problems we face. Now is the time to take some action and to accomplish something.”