Privatization of Public Defenders Could Help Fix the Underfunded System

The Missouri Public Defender System currently contracts approximately $6 million in casework to private attorney to compensate for the lack of state public defenders.

Posted: Mar. 12, 2018 12:26 PM

State lawmakers are looking for new solutions to resolve problems surrounding the Missouri Public Defender system, including turning over a large portion of the cases to private attorneys.

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The privatization of the public defense office in Texas County, Missouri is looking for options to fix the underfunded public defender system, but state defenders are saying privatization is not a viable option to cover the caseload or cost of proper legal defense for the entire state.

"There's not the private attorneys to take the 80,000 cases a year for an amount that even comes close to what we do it for," Michael Barrett Missouri Public Defender Director said. "We would do more, but we're up against capacity. Even if we had more money, there is not the private attorneys to take these cases."

The Missouri Public Defender System currently contracts approximately $6 million in casework to private attorney to compensate for the lack of state public defenders.

According to a local attorney if the system becomes privatized, clients run the risk of not being represented by a criminal defense attorney.

"If you are taking one criminal case a year and you primarily handle tort litigation, or some other area, that may not be your primary area of expertise in the law," Suzanne Kissock Missouri Western Legal Studies Program Director said. "The American Bar Association put out guidelines and they recommend that an attorney handle no more than 40 to 50 cases at a time. unfortunately, in Missouri our attorneys, our public defenders are exceeding 100 cases per attorney."

While funding for public defenders has increased over the years, it hasn't quite kept up with the number of cases. have increasing 16 percent in the last two years.

The increased caseload has also put a financial burden on county jails.

"if we are not well funded, then people sit in jail longer than they need to be and that causes a significant cost for the county," Barrett said.

In February, a bill was submitted to the Missouri House of Representatives calling for 90 percent of all public defender cases to be transferred to private attorneys, however that piece of legislation is still under review.

Missouri is currently ranked 49th in the nation for funding of public defenses per capita. The state only spends approximately $5.58 per person for indigent legal defense.

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