Missouri & Florida Public Defenders Have The Right To Refuse Cases

It seems that all states have issues keeping up with public defense. I have written before about Florida & Michigan's troubles, and now it seems to be Missouri's turn. The NYTimes recently ran a story about the troubles facing Missouri's public defender system.

At this point, public defenders in both Missouri and Miami (Florida) have won the right to refuse cases because of the extremely high caseloads. "Chronically understaffed, and reeling from caseloads several times larger than those managed by private lawyers, public defenders here and in many parts of the country have started trying to force legislators to respond. In the last two years, defender agencies in Missouri and Miami have won, in state Supreme Courts, the right to refuse new cases they cannot responsibly handle."

"In Missouri, where public defenders say they are especially burdened, many legal experts hope that an exhaustive new analysis of workloads and needs, sponsored by the American Bar Association, will strengthen their multiyear battle for change. [This new report shows that] "[f]or serious felonies, defenders spent an average of only nine hours preparing their cases, compared with the 47 hours they needed, the study found. For misdemeanors, they spent only two hours while 12 were called for."

And as many other "legal experts say, the daily triage required of public lawyers is unconstitutional and forces them to violate their ethical obligations to clients." In other words, they just can't do it all.

"Translating the bar association report’s numbers into staffing and budget, the state defender office has requested a funding increase of about $25 million, phased in over four years, to allow the hiring of 206 more lawyers and, crucially, 412 more clerks and investigators. It has requested an additional $4 million, among other increases, to cover about 4,000 cases annually in which juvenile offenders receive no representation."

I can't help but think about the constant arguments of the oversupply of lawyers when these public defense lawyers obviously have too much to handle. It's not necessarily that there is an oversupply of lawyers, but there is a gap in those who are served.

Although the states are currently lacking funding and resources, there has been some good news on the federal front. "The federal judiciary has restored hourly pay rates that had been reduced by $15 an hour for lawyers in private practice who accept appointments to defend indigent defendants in criminal cases. For work starting March 1, hourly rates will be $126. For defending clients in death penalty cases, the rate will be $180."

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