Young public defender struggles with workload, emotional strain

Natalie Hull, a public defender, talks with a client while her desk overflows with case files on Dec. 20, 2013. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Missouri State Public Defender came to an agreement to alleviate the workload of public defenders, but Attorney General Eric Schmitt has moved to intervene because of concerns he has about the agreement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the Missouri State Public Defender reached an agreement Monday that aims to provide indigent defendants with adequate legal representation, according to federal court records.

But the deal drew concerns from Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt, who filed a motion to intervene in the case Tuesday.

The agreement comes after years of calls to reform the overburdened public defender system. To go into effect, a federal judge would need to approve the agreement.

The public defenders office did not return requests for comment.

“Our case challenging Missouri’s indigent public defense system, which for decades has been among the worst in the country, has been pending for almost two and a half years,” said ACLU of Missouri Legal Director Tony Rothert. “For most of that time, the attorney general’s office has argued it has no business in the case. At no time has the Attorney General offered any solutions to this ongoing constitutional crisis in Missouri.”

The agreement outlined several stipulations that public defenders would have to follow. The agreement was posted online by the St. Louis Public Radio.

One stipulation is a 40-hour work week for public defenders. Under the agreement, they could not work beyond that unless working more helps them provide adequate representation.

Once the limit is reached, private counsel would be appointed or the public defender would ask the prosecutor to not consider incarceration as a punishment, “eliminating the constitutional right to an attorney,” according to the agreement.

Also, an office will not accept any additional cases until a public defender with enough time to take on a case is available.

Schmitt said in a statement that requiring public defenders to refuse cases if they exceed a 40-hour work week violates Missouri law. In a court document, Schmitt added that some defendants accused of serious crimes “may walk free” under the policy.

The limits on hours worked comes after public defenders have been inundated with cases for years. From 2015 to 2017, the state public defender’s office saw a more than 16 percent increase in casework, according to the agreement.

This often leads to defendants not having legal representation during court dates. As of this year, 4,316 indigent defendants are on waitlists, meaning they have no legal representation, according to the agreement.

Boone County was not spared the heavy case loads that plagued the state. In fall 2017, Judge Kevin Crane appointed 37 attorneys to take pro bono cases of indigent defendants to help public defenders with their heavy case loads.

Beyond case loads, the agreement outlines other stipulations.

Public defenders would be required to meet with their clients at least one day before their scheduled court dates. The defenders would also have to meet with clients within seven days of being assigned to the client “as well as every 30 days thereafter unless there are no significant updates in the client’s case,” according to the agreement.

Also, public defenders would not be allowed to advise defendants to plead guilty merely because they’re incarcerated while awaiting trial.

To enforce these stipulations, a third-party monitor would be appointed.

In a statement, Schmitt called the proposed agreement a “threat” that would cause “lasting damage” to the Missouri justice system.

The proposal “harms the indigent citizens that rely on the State for representation and could threaten public safety at the same time,” Schmitt said.

According to the attorney general’s news release, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, the Missouri Fraternal Order of Police and the Missouri Police Chiefs Association support Schmitt’s stance.

Supervising editor is Sky Chadde.

  • Hi, I am a public safety and health reporter - studying data journalism Reach me at huntergilbert@mail.missouri.edu, or in the newsroom at 882-5700

  • Spring 2019 public life reporter. I am a junior studying news writing and sociology. Reach me at sarahhaselhorst@mail.missouri.edu, or 573-340-5591.

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