KANSAS CITY — Civil rights advocates filed a lawsuit to end Missouri’s use of public defender “waitlists,” a practice they contend deprives thousands of people of their right to court-appointed counsel.
A petition filed Wednesday in the Circuit Court of Cole County seeks a court order forcing Missouri to immediately stop the practice by either appointing counsel or dropping charges against criminal defendants who have not been provided a defense attorney.
The lawsuit alleges that more than 4,600 people were on growing waiting lists for a defense attorney in Missouri, and about 600 of those are being held in pretrial detention without legal representation. It blames an overburdened indigent defense system for criminal defendants sometimes waiting months or even years before they are assigned an attorney.
It alleges the practice of using waiting lists violates the rights to counsel and due process guaranteed by the Missouri Constitution.
The petition, which seeks class-action status, was filed on behalf of eight named criminal defendants by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Missouri, the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center and the law firm Orrick, Herrington and Sutcliffe.
“If the state of Missouri cannot afford to hire enough public defenders to properly represent all indigent defendants, it should either reallocate its resources accordingly or significantly decrease the number of people it chooses to prosecute in criminal court,” Jason Williamson, Deputy Director of the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a news release.
In addition to the state, the lawsuit names as defendants Mary Fox, director of Missouri’s Office of State Public Defender, along with the Missouri Public Defender Commission and several judges.
Fox’s office said she was in meetings, but would comment later in the day.
Missouri relies almost exclusively on the Office of State Public Defender to provide indigent defense services in all 114 counties and the city of St. Louis. The lawsuit alleges chronic underfunding and increasing caseload have led to a staffing crisis with its attorneys operating at more than double the maximum workload that would allow adequate representation.
To alleviate the burden, criminal court judges across the state and defenders office have been placing indigent defendants on waiting lists until an attorney becomes available.
The average number of days indigent defendants are on a waitlist for an attorney while in jail is 114 days, but the petition cites cases in which people have waited in jail to get an attorney for far longer.
As of Jan. 9, three indigent defendants have been in held in pretrial detention and on a waitlist for more than two years, the lawsuit contends. Another 44 defendants have been waiting for more than one year.
The lawsuit contends that without an attorney defendants have no one to advocate for them during critical stages of their cases, such as their arraignment when bond is determined. It also contends some unrepresented defendants also feel pressured to plead guilty or waive their right to counsel in order to move court proceedings along.
“Reliance on waiting lists constitutes outright denial of counsel to those most vulnerable within the criminal legal system,” Amy Breihan, attorney with the MacArthur Justice Center, said in a statement. “Without intervention by the court, public defenders and judges will continue to endorse this practice that destroys lives, communities, and any semblance of integrity in criminal proceedings across the state.”