Mo. Senator seeks overhaul to public defender system
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Mo. Senator seeks overhaul to public defender system

Date: April 14, 2009
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 37

JEFFERSON CITY - Time ran out on it last year, but Sen. Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, says he is determined to pass legislation in 2009 that would create a number of changes to Missouri's public defender system. A bill sponsored by Goodman had little trouble moving through the Missouri Senate earlier this year, but it now faces procedural hurdles in the House and opposition from prosecutors in two of the state's largest jurisdictions, who questioned Tuesday whether the proposal resolves an actual problem.

Senate Bill 37, which won unanimous approval in the upper chamber of the General Assembly in March, was the topic before the Tuesday's House General Laws Committee hearing. Goodman, a former assistant county prosecutor, testified that his legislation would enable the state's public defender commission to determine a maximum caseload while providing more funds to hire additional attorneys. Currently, he said, defendants who cannot hire private attorneys face the risk of ineffective counsel by overworked lawyers.

"Because of a growing shortage in personnel in the public defender system, some attorneys have a larger caseload than they are ethically really able to handle," Goodman said. "When you have a caseload that is too large, you don't have time to devote to each case like you should."

The legislation would allow counties with high caseloads to contract misdemeanor and low-level felony cases to private law firms. Goodman said this would decrease the chances that a convicted defendant could have a sentence overturned because he or she has poor representation in court.

Since a defendant has a constitutional right to a speedy trial, Goodman said it is necessary to increase the number of public defenders so that more cases are heard in a shorter amount of time.

"We could be looking at jailhouse doors being flung open," Goodman said. According to him, if measure is not enacted, "Accused criminals could walk back out into our neighborhoods because we couldn't get them through the system fast enough."

Doug Copeland, a St. Louis County attorney and past president of the Missouri Bar Association, told the committee that outsourcing of defense attorneys could potentially allow counties to save money and give younger attorneys a chance to defend cases in court. He said young attorneys come at a lower price than more experienced firms and can still fulfill a defendant's constitutional right to receive counsel.

"My worry is that someone, but for an appropriate defense, loses their liberty," Copeland said. "This can provide a chance for younger lawyers to get experience and sort of be a win-win for both sides."

While there was limited legislative opposition, Tuesday, multiple elected prosecutors from the St. Louis area voiced concern with the bill, calling it hasty and questioning if the problem of prison overcrowding is really what the bill's proponents say it is. Some said it was not a caseload problem but that resources were not being fairly allocated throughout the state.

"In St. Louis County with a staff about one half as large as the prosecutor's office, they are responsible for barely one-fifth of the docket," Robert P. McCullough, prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County, wrote in a letter to the committee. "Caseload figures provided by the public defender system are highly exaggerated at best."

McCullough, along with St. Louis City prosecutor Jennifer Joyce and Warren County prosecutor Mike Wright, urged the state to wait until an impartial study is concluded to determine what an appropriate caseload is. 

Currently, they said, the Missouri Bar Foundation has hired researchers with George Mason University to determine if in fact there is a crisis within the public defender system as Goodman says there is. Joyce wrote in a letter that it is better to be safe than to allow the public defender commission to determine a maximum caseload number on their own, as this bill would allow.

Joyce added that since this bill would add public defenders, it would be too expensive to pass without being sure all the numbers are appropriate.

"To pass Senate Bill 37 now -- with its huge fiscal cost to taxpayers -- without having the benefit of this research would be irresponsible and illogical," she wrote. "We can't hope to fix a problem that is not fully understood."

Goodman himself admitted that funding for the bill isn't currently in the budget. But Dan Dodson of the Missouri Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers said the money public defenders receive pales in comparison to law enforcement budgets and that any funds spent on this would be well spent.

"There is a current problem in the public system because there's not enough money there to cover what we do," he said. "I'm not aware of a public defender system ever being over-funded in comparison to the prosecutor's office."

While the bill would still require House approval, Goodman said he was heartened by how close the legislation was to reaching then-Gov. Matt Blunt's desk in 2008. He said his bill, which failed to receive successful passage before the 2008 legislative session ended, strikes a balance between increasing the chances a defendant can receive adequate counsel and not overloading stressed public defenders.

"Defendants deserve to be fairly represented in court, and lawyers deserve a fair caseload," Goodman said. "This bill is a step toward achieving that."