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Defendants who had attorneys at early hearings spent less time in jail, study shows

The Buzz Westfall Justice Center in Clayton, Mo., the county seat of St. Louis County.
Brian Munoz
St. Louis Public Radio
New research of a St. Louis County program that provided attorneys to people at their initial court appearances for low-level felonies found that those individuals who had access to counsel at the early stages spent less time in the county jail, pictured in 2022.

Defendants in criminal cases have the right to an attorney in court proceedings, and those who cannot afford attorneys are provided one courtesy of the government.

But in Missouri and other states, those public defenders are often not appointed until after a person makes an initial appearance in court. And those first hearings are important – that is when defendants learn the conditions of their release, including how much they will need to get out of jail.

The MacArthur Foundation wanted to know what would happen if defendants facing nonviolent felonies had access to an attorney for that initial appearance. Through its Safety and Justice Challenge, it provided funds to the public defender’s office in St. Louis County. That office in turn hired two attorneys who, since 2018, have spent their days in court representing defendants facing lower-level felony charges.

“This is many people's first contact with the system, and so there was a lot of confusion and misunderstanding,” said Arizona State University criminologist Beth Huebner. “We thought that this would speed up the process, and in that process reduce the jail population.”

Huebner and other researchers recently published the results of a study looking at the impact of having attorneys so early in the process. It found that defendants who had a lawyer at their initial appearance had lower bond amounts and were therefore able to get back into the community faster. That impact was even larger for Black defendants.

People who spend fewer days in jail do better in the long run, Huebner said.

“We know that even after three days in jail, you're more likely to lose your job, have challenges with your family,” she said. “If people are in the community, they can be working, they can be attending substance abuse treatment, if needed.”

The Missouri Supreme Court recently heard arguments in several cases that will determine when the right to an attorney takes effect. Huebner said she wants the judges to consider the research in their deliberations.

“And I do hope that they consider the disparity in funding for the public defender, and for officers like judges and the prosecutors,” she added.

Funding for the program is available for another two years.

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