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Messenger: Judge puts Missouri Legislature on alert: Fund the public defenders' office, or else
Tony’s Take

Messenger: Judge puts Missouri Legislature on alert: Fund the public defenders' office, or else

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Usually when I write about the failure of the state of Missouri to properly fund its public defender system, I do so with the criminal defendant in mind, the person stuck behind bars for days or weeks or months while their Sixth Amendment right to an attorney is being violated.

Those are the people who are the plaintiffs in the cases that have been making their way through state and federal courts for the past few years, trying to force change in a state that regularly tramples on the rights of poor people who end up in the criminal justice system. Last week, a judge in one of those cases issued an important ruling, saying that the waiting lists for public defenders in many jurisdictions in Missouri are unconstitutional. The lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center.

“For the reasons previously stated, the State violates the Sixth Amendment … by charging an indigent defendant with a crime in which the State seeks the defendant’s incarceration, and then delaying for weeks, months, and even more than a year before furnishing the defendant with an attorney,” wrote Cole County Circuit Court Judge William E. Hickle.

The waiting lists were developed as a patch on a problem that has been brewing for decades. Missouri public defenders have enormous caseloads, some of the worst in the country, because the Missouri Legislature won’t provide the money to hire more lawyers.

The remedy for the lawsuit is proper funding so that every indigent defendant in the state who faces the possibility of incarceration has quick access to legal representation. Missouri has long had one of the lowest-funded public defender systems in the country.

Because the Missouri Legislature is considering a budget that would allow Mary Fox, the head of the public defender system, to hire 12 new lawyers in the areas of the state that have the longest waiting lists, Hickle put his ruling on hold until the end of the legislative session.

So as lawmakers mull their options under the pressure of the court ruling, perhaps those who aren’t moved by protecting the rights of criminal defendants who happen to be poor people might think instead of the victims of crime. If state lawmakers don’t properly fund the public defender’s office, what happens to the people charged with crimes whose rights are being violated?

They will go free. Cases will go away. Convictions will be set aside. Victims will receive no justice.

This is the framing that U.S. District Judge Nanette Laughrey adopted in a ruling in a similar case that was dismissed last year in an agreement between the state and the plaintiffs. In that federal case, Laughrey refused to accept a consent decree, in which, similar to the waiting list solution, the public defenders and the plaintiffs tried to come up with a compromise to limit the damage of an underfunded system. Laughrey explained in her ruling exactly what is on the horizon if lawmakers don’t eventually come to the table to solve this problem:

“Ultimately, the staffing problems identified in the record may result in specific state criminal convictions being set aside because of Sixth Amendment violations and/or additional ethics complaints against public defenders, even though the public defenders are not at fault for the staffing problems,” Laughrey wrote in her order. “Nonetheless, the proposed consent decree is not the vehicle to ensure that the (Missouri State Public Defender) and the State of Missouri meet their legal obligation to provide constitutionally adequate representation to indigent defendants.”

The correct vehicle is proper funding.

This is one of those rare legal situations in which there is really no dispute over the facts. The Missouri public defender system is woefully underfunded, and as a result, indigent defendants often end up behind bars for months with no opportunity to address the charges against them. Crime victims suffer, too, as cases are delayed. The entire criminal justice system is undermined by the failure of the state to fulfill its constitutional obligations.

Missouri lawmakers have a choice. They can continue to lock people up because they’re poor and fail to provide them access to their constitutionally required attorney. Or they can wait for a judge to open the jail house doors and force a dramatic solution on the state.

The clock is ticking.

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