State public defender says proposed budget increase not enough to address waitlists

MARK OSSOLINSKI
Missouri News Network

A proposal to fund the hiring of additional public defense attorneys in Missouri would be helpful but still insufficient, according to testimony by the director of the Missouri State Public Defender System on Tuesday.

Director Mary Fox, speaking before members of the House Budget Committee, told lawmakers their new budget bill’s annual $1 million carveout for 15 additional public defenders would help eliminate waitlists for attorneys in some parts of the state, but it would not resolve backlogs in all public defender offices across Missouri.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against Missouri last year in an attempt to end the state’s use of public defender waitlists, which civil rights advocates argue deprives thousands of people of their right to legal counsel. That lawsuit alleged that over 4,600 Missourians were on such waitlists as of February 2020.

In February, Judge William E. Hickle ruled that the waiting lists are unconstitutional and gave the state legislature a July 1 deadline to resolve the issue.

In an attempt to address that backlog, the Budget Committee has proposed funding 15 new public defenders, on top of funding for 12 new attorneys already approved in a separate House bill that now awaits consideration in the Senate.

But that funding for a potential total of 27 public defenders still falls far short of the 53 that Fox’s department has requested.

Asked by Rep. Peter Merideth, D-St. Louis, whether the new funding would be enough to completely eliminate waitlists across the state, Fox said the question is difficult to answer.

“It will resolve the waitlists in the offices that currently are part of the litigation that is going on in the ACLU lawsuit,” she said, but she added that MSPD has “identified overload” in other offices that will require additional attorneys to resolve.

She said some public defender offices in the state, including ones not mentioned in the ACLU lawsuit, have seen waitlists grow to as high as 1,000 people.

Even if the state were to give Fox’s office funding for 53 additional attorneys, she said no single office out of the state’s 33 trial offices would receive more than three new public defenders.

In addition to simply wanting to provide timely legal representation to those who need it, Fox said another reason to resolve the waitlists as quickly as possible is to stave off new litigation against the state similar to the ACLU’s.

“I haven’t been told anyone’s going to sue us,” Fox said, “but I’ve only been here a year and we’ve been sued twice. So, I anticipate that that would happen.”

Rep. Don Mayhew, R-Crocker, pressed Fox about why her office is requesting funding for the 53 additional attorneys on an ongoing basis, rather than for a finite amount of time solely to eliminate the waitlists.

Fox said her anecdotal observation is that addiction and mental health issues are driving an increased overall caseload in Missouri and will require greater investment in the state’s public defense system moving forward.