KANSAS CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri's top prosecutor says a proposal that would reduce the workloads of attorneys who represent indigent defendants could instead harm indigent citizens while also threatening the public safety.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt raised concerns Tuesday about the deal between the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri and the public defender system. It's part of a proposed settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU more than two years ago, which alleged that by failing to adequately fund and staff the public defender system, Missouri hadn't met its constitutional obligation to provide poor defendants with meaningful legal representation, KCUR-FM reported.
The proposed settlement would allow public defenders to turn down cases in order to stay within a time limit based on how much work should be spent defending different types of crimes. It also sets maximum caseloads for the state's more than 500 public defenders and calls for defendants to be screened quickly to determine if they qualify for a public defender.
Schmitt said in a news release that requiring a public defender's office to refuse cases when any attorney in the office's caseload exceeds 40 hours per week directly contradicts laws meant to ensure that indigent citizens get adequate representation.
In a motion he filed seeking to intervene in the case, Schmitt said the proposed judgment also would allow prosecutors to eliminate incarceration as a possible sentence in some criminal proceedings or require courts to dismiss some criminal cases.
"Individuals accused of some of the most serious felonies in Missouri - rape, kidnapping, armed robbery - may walk free without undergoing a trial because a public defender's office will refuse to take any cases that will require an attorney to work more than 40 hours per week," he wrote in the motion.
"My job is to represent the people of Missouri, and they deserve to have a voice in this matter. Legislation by consent decree is an unacceptable way to conduct business," Schmitt said.
Tony Rothert, the ACLU of Missouri's legal director and interim executive director, said Schmitt mischaracterized the settlement proposal.
"The attorney general's characterization of the proposed consent judgment fairly well evidences that his office hasn't been paying attention to the case very closely," Rothert said.
Michael Barrett, who oversees the state's public defender system, declined to comment on pending litigation.
The case is scheduled to go to trial in August, unless the judge overseeing the case approves the settlement.
It's not clear whether Schmitt will be granted the right to intervene in the case. He argues that because the proposed settlement would affect the state's entire criminal justice system, he should be allowed to intervene as a matter of right.