Missouri Senate endorses case limit for public defenders

JEFFERSON CITY | The Senate passed legislation Wednesday intended to lessen the pressure on Missouri's heavily burdened public defenders by establishing caseload limits and excusing them from representing some defendants.

Some local public defender offices already are turning away clients because their caseloads are so high.

Sponsoring Sen. Jack Goodman said the current backlog of cases puts the public defender system in crisis. He said the easiest fix would be more funding, but that extra money would be difficult to find in a lean budget year.

The legislation (SB 37), which the Senate sent to the House on a 32-0 vote, would allow the state Public Defender Commission to establish a maximum caseload standard. If the number of cases being handled by a public defenders' office reaches that threshold, the state could contract with private attorneys or place defendants on a waiting list for a state attorney.

Before the state public defender system was created in 1989, all indigent defendants were represented by contract lawyers.

"This crisis creates a good opportunity for us to also look at flexibilities and efficiencies," said Goodman, R-Mount Vernon.

The legislation removes the requirement that public defenders represent some people facing lesser charges.

Current law provides public defenders to people facing misdemeanor charges that "will probably result" in jail time. The bill passed by the Senate would require a prosecutor to specifically request a jail sentence be provided to public defenders in those misdemeanor cases.

In the 2008 fiscal year, the state public defender system provided attorneys in more than 26,000 misdemeanor cases, a significant number of which resulted in no jail time.

In January, Missouri Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith called for between $5 million and $10 million to pay for more public defenders. In a speech to lawmakers, Stith also praised the efforts of Springfield lawyers who volunteer to take on extra cases.

During debate on the bill, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, said lawyers in her area are required to take pro bono cases dealing with juvenile law.

Justus, who runs the pro bono division for her law firm, said 73 percent of lawyers in the Kansas City area did volunteer work through that program last year.