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Missouri lawmakers weigh major changes to indigent defense

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The Missouri House of Representatives is considering whether private attorneys across the state should handle more cases where the defendant cannot afford a lawyer.

Currently, the state public defender's office contracts with private attorneys if there is a conflict, or, as needed, to reduce caseloads. The proposal from Rep. Robert Ross, R-Yukon, would have private attorneys handle most lower-level cases. Public defenders would still handle more serious crimes and death-penalty cases.

Ross’ bill comes as the state continues to struggle to find ways to reduce workloads for the public defender's office. Studies dating back to 1993 show its attorneys are handling too many cases at a time. And last year, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a federal lawsuitalleging the caseloads violated the U.S. Constitution.

“My goal throughout this process is to solve the problem,” Ross told the House budget committee on Thursday. “I’ve heard about it for the last six years. And the only solution I’ve heard is, ‘Give us more money.’”

The public defender’s office asked for a nearly $30 million increase from last year, but Gov. Eric Greitens has recommended a nearly flat budget.

Ross said the move could also save the state money, although that wasn’t his intent. But members of the committee, like Rep. Michael Butler, D-St. Louis, questioned that assumption.

Attorneys who take cases on a contract basis get a flat fee depending on the type of case, plus some reimbursement for mileage. But those current fees are too low, Butler said, which will likely make the cost of the contract program more expensive than projected.

“I think these are very conservative numbers, and yet they still cost the state $24.8 million more when currently implemented. The increase that the public defender’s office wants right now is about $25.5 million. So it almost seems that if we just give the increase, we could save ourselves all the hassle of changing the entire system and, in a sense, the risk of the cost being even higher.”

Michael Barrett, the head of the public defender’s office, agreed with Butler. And while he is not philosophically opposed to contracting out more cases, Barrett said he’s already having trouble recruiting private attorneys for the current number of cases.

“If we now take away 70 to 90 percent of our cases, I don’t know where they’re going to go. And that’s a heck of an experiment with someone’s Bill of Rights,” he said.

The committee did not take a vote on the measure Thursday. Ross said he wants to change when it would take effect and look at possibly doing a pilot program before rolling it out statewide. It was not immediately clear when the committee would take any further action.

Follow Rachel on Twitter: @rlippmann


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