Missouri Becomes Latest State in a Series to Report Public Defender Funding Woes

The Missouri public defender system announced yesterday that its Springfield office would not accept new cases until August because attorneys have exceeded their maximum caseloads.

According to the Columbia Daily Tribune, Missouri's public defender system has been plagued with financial troubles for years. Based on a special legislative committee report, lawmakers in 2009 approved a bill to let the Public Defender Commission set up maximum caseload standards and establish waiting lists for clients to be assigned an attorney. But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill saying it would mean more work for courts and prosecutors and would burden both defendants and victims.   

So public defender attorneys in the state have been forced to deal with increasingly higher caseloads. Cat Kelly, a state public defender deputy director, told the Tribune that inadequate resources could mean indigent defendants will spend more time in jail while waiting to be assigned a public defender. She went on to say that “by exceeding the caseload standards, clients cannot be adequately defended and public defenders risk malpractice lawsuits and losing their law license”.

But Missouri is not alone. Public defender systems across the country are in distress because of decreased funding and resources. An $11 million shortfall in North Carolina’s Office of Indigent Defense budget could force the office to stop or delay paying appointed private attorneys by mid-May 2011. In Montana, an $800,000 shortfall this budget cycle accompanies a four to seven percent increase in the caseload for the state’s public defenders over the last two years.

The crisis facing public defender systems has been brewing for some time as these programs were facing serious funding difficulties even before the current economic crisis. In a 2009 meeting of the American Bar Association House of Delegates, Attorney General Eric Holder addressed the growing problem of underfunded indigent defense systems.

“Resources for public defender programs lag far behind other justice system programs,” he said. “Defenders in many jurisdictions carry huge caseloads that make it difficult for them to fulfill their legal and ethical responsibilities to their clients.”

Like many state programs, public defender systems are being underfunded but skimping on these services could lead to legal complications for states.  “Indigent defense is not an optional expense for state governments,” said Mary Schmid, senior counsel for the Criminal Justice Program at The Constitution Project. “While other state budget expenditures may be completely discretionary, funding for indigent defense is simply not.”

More than two dozen states have faced legal challenges to their programs in recent years. “When state legislatures refuse to provide adequate funding to indigent defense systems, as they are constitutionally obligated to do, states face the real possibility of litigation against the state, as we’re seeing now in states like Michigan, New York and Florida,” Schmid said.

So as caseloads increase and resources dwindle, public defenders may find themselves backed into a corner. “Defense attorneys who are forced to take on more clients than they can competently represent simply may have no other option than to file a lawsuit to obtain the funding necessary to protect the constitutional rights of the accused,” said Schmid.