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Missouri State Public Defender: Without more money, offices around the state may have to close

Missouri's chief public defender, Michael Barrett (right), appears before the House Budget Committee on Monday, Feb. 27, 2071.
File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

The head of Missouri's Office of the State Public Defender has been seeking more money for years, to no avail. Now, he says it's crucial: Outposts around the state may have to close, including the division that handles death penalty cases.

For the coming fiscal year, Michael Barrett asked for $67 million — a $27 million increase over the current state allocation of $41 million. But Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposed budget only allots $40 million for next year, a million less.

Knowing he won’t get what he wants, Barrett still made his presentation Monday to the House Budget committee, which is using Greitens’ recommendations.

Barrett suggests he can try to cut travel costs, but there's an obstacle: Whenever a single crime is committed by more than one defendant, known in legal circles as “conflict” cases.

“This is what requires my attorneys to get on the road and drive to far-away courtrooms beyond their jurisdiction of assignment,” he said. “Currently, we have economies of scale – we have one public defender handling 200 cases in front of a single judge. But because one office in the public defender system handles sometimes up to eight or nine counties, when there’s a conflict, that attorney has to leave their courtroom of assignment, get on the road and travel for two cases, and then they have to sit in that courtroom all day.”

Barret said extra funding could allow his office to hire private attorneys and enable public defenders to have lighter caseloads and less travel time.

He also told lawmakers that caseloads have been steadily increasing over the years.

“What happened last year that created the perfect storm was a 12 percent increase in our cases, coupled with 10 years of cost increases that were not accounted for, and boom – something’s got to give,” he said.

Barrett made headlines last year when he appointed Gov. Jay Nixon to serve as a public defender in a criminal case in Cole County, a move he says was designed to show how short-handed his office is. A local judge tossed out Barrett’s order.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.