Employing a little used state law that allows him under extraordinary circumstances to delegate legal representation to any member of the state bar, the director of the Missouri public defender program assigned Governor Jay Nixon to give legal aid to the state’s indigent defendants.
Director Michael Barrett of the office of the Missouri State Public Defender says that his department is so woefully underfunded that his lawyers are vastly overburdened by their caseloads.
“As of yet, I have not utilized this provision because it is my sincere belief that it is wrong to reassign an obligation placed on the state by the 6th and 14th Amendments to private attorneys who have in no way contributed to the current crisis,” Mr. Barrett wrote in a letter sent this week to the governor. “However, given the extraordinary circumstances that compel me to entertain any and all avenues for relief, it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it.”
Mr. Nixon’s office responded Thursday, saying the public defender had overstepped his authority.
“Gov. Nixon has always supported indigent criminal defendants having legal representation,” said spokesman Scott Holste. “That being said, it is well established that the public defender does not have the legal authority to appoint private counsel.”
Complaints of underfunding and high caseloads are not unique to Missouri — the American Civil Liberties Union has filed lawsuits against numerous states in recent years alleging failures to provide adequate legal representation to indigent defendants.
But experts say Missouri has a long history of ranking near the bottom in terms of state per-capita spending for legal representation of the poor.
Missouri spends $6.20 per person on indigent defense, far below the national average of $18.63 per person, according to David Carroll, executive director of the Sixth Amendment Center.
“For them to simply move to the middle, they would need to spend $115 million — about three times more than they spend now,” he said.
A 2014 study by the American Bar Association found that public defenders across the Show Me State had “insufficient time to devote to all aspects of their cases.”
“For the most serious felonies (excluding homicide), the 375 lawyers in the Missouri State Public Defender System who were surveyed reported spending an average of close to nine hours on their cases, compared to the 47 hours deemed necessary,” the report states.
Though Mr. Barrett’s recent strategy to address funding deficiencies within his office has gotten national attention, it isn’t the first time he’s gone to bat against Mr. Nixon over the issue — earlier this month he filed a lawsuit against the governor alleging the move to restrict funding to the office this year violated the state constitution.
You can understand Barrett’s frustration. But why can’t Missouri and other states fully fund their public defender departments?
You can imagine how far down the list of priorities the public defender’s office is. There are far more important funding items like construction projects with contracts let to cronies of the politicians, useless roads to nowhere, union payoffs, and the ever burgeoning burden of funding overly generous public pensions.
Some state governments are better than others. But all suffer from a stifling corruption that fails to prioritize the true functions of state government. Schools are short shifted in favor of paying off teachers’ union demands. Spending on departments rises every year without an improvement in services to the public. And departments like the office of public defender gets lost in the shuffle and is not only funded as an afterthought, but is one of the first places politicians go when they are absolutely forced to cut the budget.
It’s a sad state of affairs not easily fixed.