Cox: Changes needed in public defender system
As a result of a Supreme Court decision last year, the district offices of the Missouri Public Defender Commission (MPDC) have been empowered to decide on their own when their workload is too large.
For some time now, all across our state, various public defender offices have been making the decision that their caseload was too large and in turn they have declined to take additional cases for indigent defendants. The Missouri Public Defender Commission, which was created in 1972, is responsible to defend those charged with a crime who are unable to pay for their own defense attorney. The United States Constitution requires that taxpayers pay for the defense of indigent criminal defendant who face the possible jeopardy of a jail or prison sentence.
I certainly agree that everyone has a maximum workload which, when exceeded, might jeopardize the quality of one’s work. I disagree that any state employee should be allowed to unilaterally make such a determination. These unilateral determinations by this agency are creating a crisis in our criminal justice system.
The backlog of cases is growing. This is unacceptable. The current situation is harmful not just to indigent defendants but to victims, law enforcement and the public as a whole. An effective and functioning criminal justice system is essential to Missouri. If not addressed, this problem can bring our system of justice to a standstill.
Last October, Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich released an audit critical of MPDC. His criticisms included that the MPDC has been unable to support the basis of their calculations that they currently use to determine the maximum caseload that their attorneys can handle and that this agency has not been unable to accurately determine the resources needed to manage their caseloads. In January, the Criminal Justice Task Force of the Missouri Bar approved certain recommendations for the consideration of the Missouri Bar Executive Committee. Their recommendations included the ending of unilateral certification of offices by the MPDC, while allowing district (or circuit) public defenders to seek judicial relief of caseload through the presiding judge.
I am very concerned about these issues. My complaint is not with the individual public defenders in Missouri. I certainly believe that individual public defenders all across our state do an excellent job of representing those charged with offenses. I have observed their service in person for many years and can only praise them for their dedication. My concern relates to the current operation of this commission.
As chairman of the House Committee on the Judiciary, I believe I can help correct these problems and therefore I have filed legislation including House Bill 215. The approach I took in HB 215 was to privatize a part of the work performed by this agency. Under my proposal, the Office of Administration is to contract out legal services with private attorneys for all nonsexual class C and class D felonies, all misdemeanor cases, all traffic cases and all probation violation cases. Contracts must be awarded through a competitive bidding process designed to award contracts to the lowest and best bidder and must give priority to bidders who exhibit experience in criminal law, demonstrate the capacity to provide effective representation in all assigned cases, and carry sufficient malpractice insurance. My legislation also puts in place an improved method for taxpayers to recover the cost of these services from the criminal defendants. Currently too little of these individuals repay our state.
Under my proposal, public defenders who work for MPDC would continue to represent indigent defendants charged with the most serious offenses. The contract counsel would handle the more routine felonies which include matters like stealing and less serious assaults. Most of these offenses do not result in trials and often result in a plea of guilty. I am convinced that contract counsel will handle these case more cost effectively than the MPDC.
To make the system work better, HB 215 requires MPDC establish district offices, the boundaries of which must coincide with existing judicial circuits. Currently the district offices of the MPDC do not match our judicial circuits.
My proposed legislation would limit the representation by the public defender system to those cases that the U.S. Constitution requires us to provide. Currently that agency provides services in several categories of cases that are not required by the U.S. Constitution.
I believe that these reforms can be made without any additional cost to taxpayers by shifting funds from the Commission for payment of the contract attorneys.
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