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Deal Reached To Reduce Missouri Public Defender Workloads

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
The ACLU of Missouri and the state public defender system have reached a deal to help reduce caseloads of the public defenders.

The ACLU of Missouri and the state’s public defender system have reached a deal meant to ensure that low-income defendants are properly represented when they go to court.

The agreement made public on Monday sets maximum caseloads for the state’s 500-plus public defenders, and allows them to turn down cases to stay within a time limit that is based on how much work should be spent defending different types of crimes. It also makes it clear that defendants must be screened quickly to see if they qualify for a public defender.

The proposed settlement still needs the approval of a federal judge. The state’s lead public defender, Michael Barrett, declined to comment, citing the ongoing federal litigation. The ACLU did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

A federal lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2017 was the latest attempt to solve an issue that has bedeviled the state for years. Studies dating back to 1993 showed public defenders were handling too many cases. The ACLU finally sued because there had been no efforts toward improvement, which the organization’s legal director, Tony Rothert, called “untenable.”

The settlement does not require the public defender system to admit that it had violated the rights of “any specific indigent defendant or defendants.” But the ACLU and the state both agree that attorneys in the system spend much less time than professional norms say they should on cases.

“Although MSPD denies that its attorneys aim to provide anything other than constitutionally-adequate representation, the parties agree that, given the overwhelming admissible evidence that MSPD is grossly overburdened, and that the burden under which it operates routinely and systematically harms indigent criminal defendants by depriving them of competent counsel,” attorneys for the state and the ACLU wrote.

In addition to setting the caseload guidelines, the proposed settlement also lists new standards for attorney performance, such as mandating that public defenders aggressively challenge the government’s case before trial. Attorneys would also not be allowed to encourage clients to plead guilty simply to get them out of jail.

An outside monitor would be in charge of making sure all public defender offices meet the new standards. It’s not clear how much the settlement will cost.

Barrett said in an email that the state provided $500,000 for contract attorneys in the budget that begins July 1. The office had requested $3 million to reduce current waitlists. The Legislature has also provided funding for two units that focus on juvenile cases, Barrett said.

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Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.