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Public Defense System's Problem Management, Not Resources

(Courtesy of SC Ryan Counsulting)

I’ve known professor Michael Wolff since he taught me in law school 25 years ago, so I was eager to hear his recent on-air opinion piece about Missouri’s Public Defender system.  I’m pleased to say that Professor Wolff and Missouri’s prosecutors agree on many of the points he raises in his opinion piece.  We agree that it is the role of prosecutors to pursue justice, and that that justice can only occur when there are qualified, experienced defense attorneys and prosecutors. We agree that citizens deserve a healthy and effective Public Defender System.  In fact, no one wants a strong defense counsel more than prosecutors, so victims don’t have to endure cases overturned on appeal due to ineffective assistance of counsel.   Thankfully, this rarely happens with cases handled by the public defenders.  In fact, statistics show private defense counsel cases are far more likely to be overturned on appeal because of bad lawyering.

This leads me to where we differ.  Professor Wolff suggests that defendants are not getting adequate representation because of an alleged fiscal crisis in the Public Defender’s Office.  With all due respect to my former professor, this is mythology.   As a practitioner in the criminal justice system, I see what happens in real-life St. Louis courtrooms every day.   Far from being in crisis, the Public Defender’s Office in the City of St. Louis is doing very well.  My colleagues in other parts of the state say the same thing.  

The truth is, the problem with the Missouri Public Defender’s System is a management issue, not lack of tax payer resources.  The recent report by the Missouri State Auditor underscores what prosecutors have been saying for years.  The report cites numerous areas of concern in the basic oversight of the Public Defender system, such as case-counting methodology and failure to collect nearly $70 million in debt that would offset some of their costs.   We need to make sure that public defenders never again unilaterally close their doors to Missouri’s poorest citizens.

But there is good news.  With the support and participation of prosecutors, the Missouri Bar has created a task force to study this issue and devise a long-term solution.  One of the ideas proposed makes real sense – the creation of a hybrid public-private defender system.  This idea is also reflected in legislation filed by Representative Stanley Cox.  The concept is simple.  Have the skilled, experienced public defenders represent indigent defendants on the most serious cases such as assault, murder and rape.  The lower level cases, such as drug possession, could be contracted out to private attorneys who could handle these cases effectively, but at a much lower cost to the taxpayers.  

Prosecutors believe this proposed new model would provide effective representation to Missouri’s poorest citizens who are accused of crimes, which is what pursuing justice is all about.