clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Public defenders in Missouri are so overworked, they assigned the governor a case

Jay Nixon
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is feuding with the public defenders in his state.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

The lead public defender in Missouri has the right to assign any lawyer in the state to represent a poor client in need of legal defense in court.

And with a caseload too big for the full-time public defenders to keep up with, Michael Barrett found just the one: Jay Nixon, Missouri’s Democratic governor, who has continually cut the budget for the department.

“I can only hire attorneys when I have the funding to do so,” Barrett wrote in a letter to Nixon, who is a lawyer, arguing that the governor was well aware of the financial crisis and the department’s shortcomings and has refused to fix them.

Barrett wrote that he hasn’t wanted to assign cases to private attorneys because the difficult working conditions in the public defender’s office are not their fault. But, he wrote, “it strikes me that I should begin with the one attorney in the state who not only created this problem, but is in a unique position to address it.”

So he assigned Nixon a case.

This isn’t just a problem in Missouri

Missouri’s public defenders are particularly overworked. The state has 376 attorneys that together handle more than 100,000 cases per year, meaning they don’t have enough time to devote to any of them. A 2014 study by the American Bar Association and the law firm Rubin Brown found that they were spending less than half the time recommended to defend a client accused of sexual offenses, for example.

And that’s despite the fact that it’s hard to get a public defender in Missouri. As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch points out, the lawyers are only available to defendants below the poverty line — a harsher cutoff than the federal government uses for food stamps.

Missouri spends less per capita on its public defenders than any state but Mississippi. Still, the problems the state is facing are far from unique. Most public defenders handle more cases per year than recommended in professional standards for lawyers. In 2006 in one county in Tennessee, according to a 2009 study from the National Right to Counsel Committee, six attorneys handled 10,000 misdemeanors, spending less than one hour on each case; in Florida, public defenders handle on average 500 cases per year.

And when public defenders are this overworked, they get sloppy — making basic errors, like not informing clients about plea deals in time, that can lead to unnecessary months or years in prison for their indigent defendants.

Reports on Missouri’s public defender system in particular have pointed out these problems for years. A 2009 report on the system is filled with horrifying anecdotes: a lawyer who was wrongly told her client had been released from jail and didn’t have time to follow up, finding out weeks or months later that he had been imprisoned the whole time and wondering where his attorney was; an office where a paralegal not only does all the legal research but drafts the briefs.

The chaos, and the need for triage, means lawyers accept that eventually some of their clients will argue in court that they were represented poorly and deserve a new trial.

It also undermines confidence in the legal system. “One experienced lawyer in the St. Louis City office stated that more and more clients are saying, ‘I feel sorry for you because you have such a high caseload,’” the 2009 report concluded.

Since then, though, the situation hasn’t improved. The public defender office asked for $23 million more in funding in the most recent budget, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Nixon recommended $1 million. The legislature ended up adding $4.5 million — but the office argues Nixon has withheld most of it, and has filed a lawsuit.