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Private lawyers in MO being asked to be public defenders

By Bill Raack, KWMU

St. Louis, MO – Private lawyers in Missouri are being asked to donate their time to be public defenders.

The goal is to ease the growing caseload on public defenders by letting recruits handle minor cases.

The Missouri Bar Association is handling the recruitment effort, saying the state's public defender system is struggling to keep up with a caseload that exceeds national standards by 30%.

Bar president-elect Doug Copeland, of St. Louis, says the criminal justice system could suffer without the help from private counsels.

"There are obviously various components of that system," Copeland told KWMU Monday. "There's the judiciary, there's the prosecutorial arm and there's the defense arm. And we feel strongly that whenever any of those pieces are broken, you run the risk of the entire system being pulled down and not accomplishing the task it set out to accomplish."

There are about 300 full time public defenders in Missouri who are expected to have to handle more than 98,000 cases in the fiscal year that starts July 1st.

Copeland adds a reason for the extra work is that state funding, which peaked about six years ago, hasn't kept up with needs.

"Before that time, the funding had increased year by year and therefore they were able to keep up with an increasing caseload. But five or six years ago it plateaued and they have not gotten and significant dollars since then and have not been able to hire any significant number people since then.

"Matter of fact, I think it's only been two people."

The deputy director of the state's public defender system says the excessive caseload is affecting the quality of legal representation that they're able to provide.

Copeland says more than 100 attorneys have already responded to the appeal for help.