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Armed with a fresh legal decision, Missouri public defender calls on lawmakers to fund office

Armed with a fresh legal decision, Missouri public defender calls on lawmakers to fund office


JEFFERSON CITY — The head of Missouri’s cash-strapped public defender system made her case for more money Monday, telling legislative budget writers they need to correct years of underfunding the office.

This time around, however, members of the House and Senate may be hard-pressed to ignore Mary Fox’s pleas.

Armed with a court ruling issued earlier this month, Fox said the office can no longer put defendants on waiting lists as a way to deal with her office’s lack of personnel.

In her budget proposal, Fox is seeking $820,000 to hire 12 additional attorneys. That could help head off additional court action in connection with the lawsuit, which was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the MacArthur Justice Center.

“One additional attorney in each of these 12 offices that have a court-authorized waitlist will significantly decrease the existing waitlists and the addition of new defendants to them,” Fox noted.

She also has requested $280,000 to hire an additional four attorneys to handle parole cases.

Fox said her request is just a start as the Legislature begins building out a budget worth more than $34.6 billion for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

“The need is actually greater than that,” Fox said. “My goal was to focus on what was essential.”

Last year, despite a separate federal court ruling that raised questions about funding shortfalls, the budget proposed by Republican Gov. Mike Parson fell short of eliminating the waiting list.

Since the creation of an independent public defender office in 1982, the system has struggled for much of its existence to obtain the necessary resources to fulfill its constitutional mandate.

Fox said the crush of cases that led to the waiting list started when methamphetamine became a significant problem in Missouri.

“As crime numbers increased, our staffing did not keep up,” Fox said.

And the growth in the number of defendants needing assistance occurred outside of the state’s urban areas.

“Where case numbers are growing are in the out-state areas,” Fox said.

In budget documents, Fox said the issue of excessive workloads among the more than 380 attorneys in the office has been the subject of five studies, each of them reaching the same conclusion: Missouri does not provide for enough lawyers to do its job.

Low pay and large caseloads have resulted in a significant turnover rate among attorneys. An estimated 15% to 18% of the public defenders leave each year.

Even the waiting list is a byproduct of court action.

It was created in 2017 after the Missouri Supreme Court took steps to punish public defenders who have high caseloads and are unable to provide sufficient legal representation.

As an example, the high court placed a Columbia attorney on probation for inadequately representing clients from 2011 to 2014 and failing to properly communicate with them, despite evidence showing a heavy caseload and that the attorney suffered from a chronic illness.

The waiting list was created to ensure attorneys don’t endanger their law licenses, Fox said.

There was one bright spot in a 2020 dominated by the pandemic: COVID-19 resulted in fewer cases being filed last year, allowing the office to reduce the waiting list.

The legislation is House Bill 12.

Originally posted Monday at 3:10 p.m.

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