Legislature gives, governor takes away public defender system increase

CHART: Missouri public defenders' reported and estimated working hours by case type

COLUMBIA — The Missouri State Public Defender System has once again failed in its quest for more funding.

Backed by new evidence that supports its claims of understaffing, the public defender system received about $4 million in funding increases from the legislature in the budget for fiscal year 2015. But Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed about 80 percent of the increase Tuesday.

The $4 million increase would have been the largest the public defender system had received since 1999, said Cathy Kelly, Missouri Public Defender Commission director.

The legislature approved the increase in response to a study that found Missouri public defenders spend, on average, 22 hours fewer than they should on murder and homicide cases. The study, called "The Missouri Project: A Study of the Missouri Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards," found that in sex felony cases, the deficit is about 38 hours.

The study — commissioned by the American Bar Association's standing committee on legal aid and indigent defendants — was released in February.

"I’m disappointed in the governor," said Steve Hanlon, chair of the ABA indigent defense advisory group. "The governor is a lawyer. The governor knows this is a question of the justice system and whether the justice system can function constitutionally and professionally. I just don’t understand how you can look the evidence squarely in the face and turn the other way."

The study also established new workload standards by which public defenders could be measured.

Previously, caseload standards were based on national standards established by the National Advisory Commission in 1973. A state audit in 2012 declared these to be too old and broad to be used effectively in Missouri. The Missouri Project study concluded that public defenders are overworked based on up-to-date caseload standards as well.

It's not the first time research has found that the public defender system is in need of funding and staffing. A consultant group hired by the Missouri Bar Association declared the system in crisis in 2005 and one of the lowest-funded systems in the country. The report found that, in 2005, Missouri was the only statewide public defender system that had gone five years without a funding increase. In 2011, the system had gone 22 years without having an adequate number of lawyers.

Last year, the public defender system was allocated about $35.3 million, Kelly said. It will receive about $36 million in next year's budget, with some additional money included to help the system contract out cases.

The remaining $3.4 million of the increase that the legislature approved was cut, though, and it was among more than $1 billion in cuts that Nixon made to the budget.

Supervising editor is Katherine Reed.

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