Public Defender System asking for extra $3M to erase backlog of Missouri defendants

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. —  The Missouri State Public Defender System is asking for more taxpayer money.

They say thousands of defendants are on the waiting lists because the office doesn’t have enough attorneys to represent them all. So they’re asking for $3 million to contract with private attorneys to help.

Mary Fox, director of the state’s Public Defender System, went before the Missouri House Budget Committee and said, based on one analysis, her office would need more than 300 new attorneys to adequately address the current need.

“We now have these wait lists where we can’t represent everyone,” she said.

Fox said approximately 6,000 Missouri defendants are waiting for attorneys. She said some of them are sitting in jail.

She’s asking the state for more money to hire six new public defenders to start, build a new office and outsource some cases to privates attorneys.

“We need to be able to reduce our caseloads to effectively represent the folks that the 6th Amendment requires representation for,” Fox said.

The backlog comes, in part, from a 2017 Missouri Supreme Court case that resulted in a public defender with a heavy caseload being disciplined for not adequately representing clients.

But last week a federal judge refused to sign off on a deal that would cap the number of cases Missouri`s public defenders are allowed to handle. The decision would have capped public defenders at 173.3 hours per month.

Fox said her office is also spending resources on cases where there’s clear evident a defendant was innocent or needs mental health services instead of prison.

“I’m not saying don’t prosecute cases because a crime has occurred,” she said. “I’m saying do a thorough investigation before you make the decision to issue a case.”

Fox also told lawmakers that programs sending some defendants to rehabilitation programs instead of prison could help reduce costs.

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