Public defenders happy with Parson’s name for extra legal professionals

The Missouri Public Defender System has received more legislative support in recent years to do more to represent those in need who cannot afford a lawyer and who need legal representation in court.

The Office of State Public Defender applied for 12 new attorneys in October. A lawyer should be housed in 12 offices that have a public defender waiting list, Director Mary Fox said.

In his budget proposal submitted to lawmakers last week, Governor Mike Parson recommended that the motion be approved at a cost of $ 820,000.

Fox said she was extremely pleased with Parson’s recommendation and believed she showed an appreciation of the problem they are facing and a willingness to work to resolve it.

The Jefferson City office, which serves clients in Cole, Miller, and Moniteau counties, would get a new attorney under this proposal.

While excited about the option to add an attorney, Fox said there is currently no place for another attorney to work.

“Some of our offices have the space we need and some don’t,” said Fox. “We spoke to the Cole County Commission about our floor space needs and would like to do it again as our office only takes up the top of the Carnegie building on Adams Street. We currently have eight lawyers approved. That would make us nine. “

Cole County’s senior defense attorney Justin Carver said there are currently seven attorneys working with one in the military.

“We love the location because it is so close to the courthouse, but I would probably have to work in the hallway for the new attorney to enter an office,” Carver said. “I will do everything I can to help, however.”

The other 11 offices that would get a lawyer under the proposal are in St. Charles, Fulton, Colombia, Harrisonville, Union, Rolla, Lebanon, Carthage, Springfield, West Plains, and Monett.

Fox said public defense waiting lists need to be approved in order to be used by judges in various counties across the state, which they have done in Cole County.

Late last week, there were 233 cases on the waiting list in Cole County, Carver said.

“The amount of time people have to stay on waiting lists varies,” said Fox. “The biggest problems are in Jefferson City, Columbia, Springfield and St. Charles. In Springfield we added staff to this office, but the number of cases continues to grow. We need to find out why some of these offices are increasing in number of cases. “

In some cases, Fox said, they figured out how to handle the prosecution of certain cases.

“For years, St. Louis County had a large number of non-child support cases, and that led to a large number of cases,” she said. “Then there was a change in the prosecution where they decided to pursue these cases in a civil court rather than a criminal court. This is one way to reduce the number of cases for the prosecutor, public defender, and the courts.

“I would also like to point out that there are other offices that don’t have a waiting list but are still overloaded,” added Fox.

A lawsuit filed by civil rights groups in February 2020 to end the use of waiting lists for public defenders is pending.

The lawsuit alleges that thousands of people were on growing waiting lists for defense attorneys in Missouri and hundreds were held in pre-trial detention without legal representation. It blames an overloaded, needy defense system for criminal defendants who sometimes wait months or years before being assigned a lawyer.

Meanwhile, defense attorneys are talking to jurisdictions about getting cases off the waiting list by providing private lawyers with funding to handle some of the cases.

In December, Cole County judges announced that 40 attorneys had agreed to help deal with misdemeanors and simple crime cases. Fox’s office heard about the project and said they thought they could find extra money to hire the outside lawyers.

The Cole County Commission approved an agreement with the state defense attorney in March 2020 to do so. Despite the restrictions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, the judges said they would reduce the waiting list. On the way into 2020, the waiting list had more than 300 cases.

“The attorneys who have volunteered to take the cases get paid at a set rate and they don’t get rich from doing the work,” Fox said. “Drug-related crime is $ 750, and parole or misdemeanor is $ 375. One of our biggest problems is that even if we have the funds, many locations don’t have lawyers to handle cases at contract prices. “

While they are getting more support at the local and state levels, they believe federal government help could come in the future.

Fox said they hope someone in Congress will take the lead on the Equal Defense Act, which was sponsored by the then Sen. Kamala Harris, who is now Vice President of the United States. The law envisaged the creation of a new $ 250 million grant program to fund public defense, including setting workload limits for full-time defense attorneys and achieving pay equality between public defenders and prosecutors within five years.

“We believe the new government would advocate such a program, and because we have a good analysis of the workload data for our state, this could help get federal funding – but that’s something we should look at later,” said Fox.

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