The Missouri Public Defender Commission could decide as soon as Friday whether to direct all state public defender offices to refuse any new cases.
Exercising what the commission has called the “nuclear option” keeps the spotlight on Missouri’s indigent legal defense system. The system was found to be on the “verge of collapse” in a 2005 study and described as in “crisis mode” by the Senate Interim Committee on the Missouri State Public Defender System in a report released in late January.
Refusing to accept new cases is one of several options proposed to address the public defender system’s “caseload crisis,” said the commission’s chairwoman, Loramel Shurtleff, a resident of Columbia and a retired private attorney.
The average caseload for Missouri public defenders is now 289, well above the 235 mixed-case load limit set by then-Gov. John Ashcroft in 1989.
“With an extraordinarily heavy load, a public defender simply doesn’t have the time to effectively handle cases,” Shurtleff said. “Something has to be done to alleviate that pressure.”
What can be done is not yet entirely clear, she said, and Friday will be the first time that the seven-member commission will review recommendations made by the Spangenburg Group, which conducted the 2005 study, the Senate committee and the Commission’s subcommittee on caseload crisis.
Directing public defenders to refuse new cases would at least help public defenders return to the Ashcroft standard, but it also leaves several questions unanswered, said Cathy Kelly, spokeswoman for the Missouri State Public Defender System. It is not clear who would handle the cases that these lawyers refuse, Kelly said.
“That is why it is being called the nuclear option,” she said. “No one knows the fallout of this. There is no statutory safety valve built in. There is no schema to address that issue.”
One of the recommendations made in January by the Senate Interim Committee was to contract misdemeanor cases to private attorneys. Such cases account for about 50 percent of an average public defender’s caseload, according to the 2006 Public Defender System’s annual report.
Shurtleff said the committee’s suggestion is one of the alternatives that could be looked at on Friday. She also said she thinks Missouri is a “ways away from the nuclear option.”
“Before that determination is ever made, it has to be carefully considered,” she said. “There has to be more work done.”
No one could be reached for comment on Monday at the Boone County Public Defender’s Office.