JEFFERSON CITY — A new head of Missouri’s beleaguered public defender system could be in place within the next two months.
Members of the state public defender commission met Thursday to outline the process for replacing Michael Barrett as director of the financially strapped agency that provides attorneys to people who cannot afford them.
Commission chairman Riley Bock of New Madrid said his goal is to bring a new director on board by no later than mid-January.
Barrett, who made $148,000 annually, announced his resignation in September after nearly five years as director of the system. He said he was returning to New York to be closer to family.
His final day is Nov. 15. Last week he terminated his registration as a lobbyist for the agency.
Barrett has been a vocal critic of the lack of resources for Missouri public defenders and the need for criminal justice reform.
In 2016, for example, he appointed former Gov. Jay Nixon, who is an attorney, to defend a case for a person who couldn’t afford a lawyer. He said the move was a protest of budget cuts for the public defender’s office. A judge later ruled that Barrett didn’t have the authority to make the appointment.
In 2017, the American Civil Liberties Union sued the state on behalf of defendants who couldn’t receive an adequate defense because their public defenders were overburdened with too many cases.
In that year, the state’s 370 public defenders handled about 82,000 cases. An American Bar Association report found that Missouri public defenders were spending about nine hours on average per case when 47 hours per case was deemed adequate.
In this year’s budget, the office scored a small victory when lawmakers and Gov. Mike Parson signed off on a nearly $1 million earmark that will allow the agency to reopen its juvenile advocacy units in St. Louis County and Jackson County.
The units will be able to hire attorneys who specialize in juvenile issues.
Core funding for the public defender’s office remained constant, at about $50 million for the fiscal year that started July 1. That means the office will still be underfunded by about $30 million, the office has said.
The inadequate funding ultimately leads to more juveniles and adults being incarcerated rather than returning to their communities, Barrett has said. He argues this increases costs to the state in the long run.
The public defender’s office also received an extra $500,000 to help address its case backlog. The agency is hiring private attorneys to help reduce waitlists of individuals who have been charged with an offense but don’t have an attorney because of excessive caseloads.
The director’s job will be posted Friday and an interim director will be named to serve while the search for a permanent director is underway.
The six-member commission includes Bock, Charles Jackson of Jefferson City, Craig Chval of Columbia, Crista Hogan of Springfield, Larry Ferrell of Cape Girardeau and Gary Fuhr of Imperial.