By David Carroll, Director of Research, National Legal Aid & Defender Association (NLADA)
Recently the St. Louis Today reported that public defenders in that city are considering refusing new cases, as their colleagues at the Missouri State Public Defenders (MSPD) have already done in Springfield and Troy. The news story also reports that the prosecuting attorney calls the whole public defender caseload issue "contrived" because prosecutors handle a far greater percentage of cases than do public defenders.
Far from being a "contrivance," the Missouri public defender system has been one of the most overworked and underfunded right to counsel systems in the country for its entire history. "It is not possible [for public defenders] to control the number of criminal cases which are filed, the seriousness or complexity of the cases, or the number of persons who may appear as indigent defendants. The Constitutional right to counsel in conjunction with a lack of control over the amount of services to be delivered creates a situation in which the management options are sharply limited. Administering the public defender and appointed counsel programs within the constraints of the statutes becomes increasingly difficult as costs and caseloads climb." With such clarity, the Missouri Public Defender Commission accurately predicted the caseload problems that they would face over the next three decades in a report sent to the state legislature in 1979.