If Gov. Mike Parson does not make changes to the Missouri Public Defender System’s next budget, the office is on track to get its largest staffing increase since about 1989. Director Mary Fox tells Missourinet 53 new public defenders would be hired statewide.
“This is going to make a huge difference in terms of our representation. Every office will have enough staff members that when a person applies for public defender services and is deemed that the case is eligible and the applicant is indigent, we will have an attorney who is able to take that case and represent that person right away,” says Fox.
According to Fox, no one on the waitlist is currently sitting in jail waiting for services.
Parson’s state budget proposal for the next fiscal year included a recommendation for additional public defenders. The Missouri Legislature passed a fiscal plan this year with 53 new attorneys. The next state budget begins July 1.
The office, which has been understaffed and overwhelmed for years, could then put an end to its waiting list for services and get it into compliance with law. A Missouri court has ruled that putting individuals on a waiting list to get public defender services violates state and federal law.
At the end of May, about 1,000 cases were on the waitlist. When Fox started with the Public Defender System in January 2020, the count was about 5,800 cases.
“At the rate, the waitlist was growing, it was looking like it was going to grow to almost 7,000 cases,” says Fox.
Then COVID-19 hit – slowing the court system and slightly reducing the number of cases coming in. Fox says her office also had funds to have some of those cases handled by private attorneys. Over the course of that time, the office has been able to reduce the caseload count.
The system has already held interviews at some Missouri law schools and law school fairs to recruit graduating law students.
“We would like to start making offers as soon as the governor signs the bill,” Fox says. “The other thing when I ask the graduating law students or the newer attorneys who are in the offices, what brought you to the Public Defender System or what interests you about the Public Defender System, one of the things they always mention is the experience. Any attorney who works for the Public Defender System is going to be in the courtroom almost from day one. They are going to have their own clients very soon after they begin with our office. The experience they receive representing clients they are responsible for and representing them in the courtrooms across the state of Missouri is experience that will serve them well, whether they decide to stay with the Public Defender System and make it a career, or go into private practice, or go into a different type of law firm.”
Fox says she thinks there will be enough interest to fill all of those positions in a timely manner. The new attorneys are for 31 of the 33 trial offices throughout the state, which covers 113 counties.
“Some of them cover as many as 11 different counties, others cover just one county. But I think that most of them are located in areas where attorneys are available and we will be able to recruit those attorneys to come and join us,” she says.
The only offices not getting extra attorneys are in St. Louis and Kansas City because Fox says they have historically been staffed better and the number of charges filed there have declined over the years.
“I’m not saying that they couldn’t benefit by having more attorneys. Both of those offices handle a significant number of serious cases and those cases take a lot of time to prepare and litigate. What we’ve seen is that while those city or urban offices had trained staffing provided to them, that the rural or outstate offices did not receive as many additional staff members. We wanted to make up that difference,” she says.
According to Fox, the workload in outstate Missouri has increased significantly over the years.
“I think that you can trace that increase back to the introduction to methamphetamine in Missouri. That began adding cases to our office both for possession and creation of methamphetamine. It also created cases – the property crimes that are often connected with the use of those drugs. That happened during the late 1990s and early 2000s,” says Fox. “In those years, the staffing was not increased in the Public Defender System. So, we are trying to make up for that lack of staff from that period of time to be able to adequately represent our clients.”
Fox says she hopes the additional attorneys will lead to a drop in the public defender turnover rate of about 12% to 15%.
“When you have someone’s life in your hands, whether or not they are going to lose their civil rights, whether they are going to go to the penitentiary, that’s an awesome responsibility. So, it’s a very stressful job. But, if you are doing that for a limited number of folks, as opposed to a never-ending number of cases being thrown on your lap, it’s a job that is more easily managed,” says Fox.
She says the state will save money by using in-house attorneys instead of contracting with private attorneys in some cases. When you figure in a salary and benefits of a state worker versus a private attorney, Fox says the amount is a savings of about $200 per case.
Fox says the work to reduce the Public Defender System’s caseload has been an effort by the Missouri Legislature and Governor’s Office throughout the years. She cites pay raises for public defenders and two years ago, a team of specialized attorneys was established who represent children in juvenile court in delinquency cases.
“So, this is sort of the icing on the cake for all those previous things that the Legislature has provided for us. Hopefully, it will get us to a point where what we’ll want to talk about in the Public Defender System is not the case overload but the good work the public defenders do on a daily basis for those who are eligible for our representation,” says Fox.
The public defender salary and benefits include the following:
*Starting salary is about $47,000
*Potential attractive salary increases
*Student loan forgiveness after ten years of service
*Continuing legal education required under Supreme Court rules would be at no cost to the employee
*Missouri Bar dues are paid
*Under the state budget plan lawmakers passed, most state employees would also get a 2% pay increase beginning next January. The public defenders would qualify for this pay hike.