The Greene County Commission in October voted to make good on its promise to fix some of the problems that are keeping people in an overcrowded local jail.

Amid a statewide shortage of public defenders, commissioners spent $25,000 to give the local office extra money to contract with private attorneys to cover 30 low-level felonies. 

An analysis of those cases shed some light on who may be sitting in the local jail. It may also offer part of a solution to keeping inmate populations stable as the county pays for an estimated $150 million jail expansion project. 

Some people in the jail are innocent

Of the 30 cases contracted out with the money:

Two had their cases completely dismissed

Nine were granted a reduced or own-recognizance bail within five weeks of being charged. As of January, just one had a warrant out for failing to appear. 

Four pleaded guilty to one or more charges. One was sent to prison and the others were let out on probation or time served within 40 days

Greene County's chief public defender, Rodney Hackathorn, said last month that part of those results could be attributed to the types of cases — all were low-level felonies that were expected to move through the system relatively quickly. More serious felonies take longer to litigate.

But he said while he couldn't give specific numbers, there are definitely still people facing low-level felonies that could benefit from a similar type of representation. 

"I can't give you a ballpark of how many there are, but there are still more," Hackathorn said. "That's why I'm hopeful because you see these are really the desired results that Greene County wanted." 

As of Thursday afternoon, there were around 980 people sitting in the Greene County jail. In 2019, that number typically hovered around 900.

Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon said seeing the end of the contract money could definitely be one contributor to the increase.

"During that contract, we started noticing the numbers tapering off, and now they're going back up again," he said. "And that may not be the only reason ... but it just underscores the importance of keeping the flow going through the system."

Keeping people out of jail saves taxpayer money

It currently costs an average of $60-$70 a day to keep a person in the Greene County jail.

If 15 people spent two months in jail, it would cost the county at least $54,000. Cutting their lengths of stay in half would save $27,000 — $2,000 more than the amount paid for contract attorneys.

And with dozens of people being shipped around the state to be housed in various counties, officials have noted those daily rates can be even higher.

Commissioner Dixon noted that keeping people moving through the system and on to the Department of Corrections or back into the community would ultimately save the county money.

"Had we not spent that (contract) money, we would be paying to house them in the jail," he said. "It doesn't make sense, so we need to fix the flow in the system for sure."

Results indicate broader problems in public defender system

The chronic underfunding of Missouri's public defender system has been a long-discussed topic in the halls of the state legislature.

Studies have found Missouri's public attorneys are assigned many more cases than they could possibly handle, and the ACLU in 2018 estimated the state was $26 million behind in paying for needed services and extra staff.

Late last month, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice George Draper implored legislators in his State of the Judiciary address to find more money, saying it hinders the entire criminal justice system to leave it underfunded.

"If criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street, those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of society, and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives," he said.

That is also true in Springfield, where defendants often have to wait months to see a lawyer.

The issue is apparent the first time defendants sit in front of a judge when they are often required to enter an initial plea and argue for pretrial release.

Many don't have an attorney by their side, and Nancy Fishman, the project director for the Vera Institute of Justice's Center on Sentencing and Corrections, said that can be detrimental to their ability to make an effective case.

"The process goes very quickly, everyone is talking over your head, and you have no ability to participate in your own defense," she said. "Having an attorney there who knows the system, who speaks that language, can make a case for 1) why you don't need to be detained and 2) what community supports you have. That's incredibly important."

A study of public defense in Maryland in 2000 found that low-income, nonviolent offenders were 2.5 times more likely to be let out of jail on their own recognizance when they had the assistance of a lawyer.

Greene County: 5 takeaways from $233M budget for 2020

They were four times more likely to have bond amounts reduced at a hearing with the help of an attorney.

And, Fishman added, research shows that people are much more likely to show up for court when they are reminded to do so, either by the court or by their lawyer.

"We have a system that's based on the idea of equal adversaries ... but the reality is that in many places, individuals facing the force of state power have very little power in that interaction," she said. "And it's even worse if they don't have counsel or if counsel is stretched so thin that they have real limitations."

Getting people to show up for their hearings also reduces the jail population by eliminating a common reason for booking — failure to appear.

Other ways to reduce jail population

Greene County is also working on ways to supervise people when they get out of jail in order to increase the number of people who may qualify for pretrial release and to increase success rates of those who are let out into the community. 

In 2019, itallocated more money than ever to pay for GPS and alcohol monitoring systems in an effort to supervise people in the community, and the county's pretrial services office has been busy handling more cases than ever before. 

And last month, the county announced plans to pay "seed money" to establish a mental health care drop-in center with Burrell Behavioral Health as part of an effort to keep people suffering from acute drug issues or mental health problems out of county custody. 

Dixon also noted that the countyrecently added a new circuit judge for the first time since the 1970s. 

"We need to do everything we can to make the whole system work," he said. 

The county has also added prosecutors in recent years to help move cases through the system, but public defenders have lagged behind, which some say makes the addition of judges and prosecutors less helpful. 

As for the contract money, Dixon said he was hopeful to continue the project with a new director of the public defender system who has yet to be announced.

(Michael Barrett, the former director of the Missouri Public Defender System, resigned last year. He made the initial contract agreement with the county.)

Dixon added that the state matched the county's $25,000 contribution for other contract cases in the county, and he hoped something like that would happen again. 

And he also said he hoped the legislature would consider the broader problem of underfunding the defender system, though he declined to make a specific endorsement of the idea without the consent of other commissioners. 

"We'll be engaging with our legislative delegation on all the issues that face Greene County," he said. "The proper function of our judicial system is a priority."