Court Urges Public Defenders To Rein In Workload

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Public defenders in Missouri, like those in many states, have been overworked and underpaid for years. The lawyers say they have so many cases in Missouri now, that the system is on the verge of collapse. The Supreme Court of Missouri seems to agree. In a recent ruling it opened the door for the state's public defenders to refuse taking on more defendants.

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In the neighboring state of Missouri, public defenders say they face crashing case loads that can make it impossible for them to properly represent defendants. The Missouri Supreme Court has urged judges, prosecutors and public defenders to find a solution. The court did leave open the possibility that overworked public defenders could refuse new cases. St. Louis Public Radio's Maria Altman has this report.

MARIA ALTMAN: Last year, Missouri's 350 public defenders handled more than 83,000 cases. In some districts, the attorneys for the indigent juggled more than 200 cases at a time.

Ms. CAT KELLY (Deputy Director, Missouri Public Defender Commission): Our lawyers have had to triage. I mean, that's just been the bottom line.

ALTMAN: Cat Kelly is the deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender Commission.

Ms. KELLY: It's sort of like, you know, the battlefield MASH unit. You look at someone and say, I've got a chance at saving this one. That one I don't have a chance at saving, so I'm going to focus my interests here and I'm not even going to try there.

ALTMAN: That's not a choice attorneys are ethically supposed to be making. Kelly says even defendants who get the most attention, those accused of murder and other serious crimes, often endure long waits. Jennifer Sansoucie is accused of killing her one son and assaulting her other. She says she's rarely seen her lawyer in the year that she's been in a St. Louis jail.

Ms. JENNIFER SANSOUCIE: I think in a year, I've seen her four, maybe five times. There's months that go by that I don't know anything, and I sit and I wonder. I leave messages. I don't get no response back.

ALTMAN: She worries her case is just one in a stack on her public defender's desk. This month, the Missouri Supreme Court acknowledged those concerns and urged public defenders to work with prosecutors and judges to rein in the number of cases going to trial. But if that fails, the court said public defenders have the right to refuse more defendants, though no one really knows what would happen next. Public defenders in Florida, Kentucky and Tennessee have asked for similar relief, according to David Carroll, director of research for the National Legal Aid and Defender Association.

Mr. DAVID CARROLL (Director of Research, National Legal Aid and Defender Association): There really is sort of a burgeoning movement for public defenders to stand up and just say no.

ALTMAN: While every defendant in the U.S., rich or poor, has a right to an attorney, Carroll says the constitution also guarantees a competent defense.

Mr. CARROLL: If people are going to jail simply because public defenders don't have the time, tools or training to look beyond the initial surface of the case, people are going to go to jail wrongfully convicted.

ALTMAN: David Carroll says when public defenders become overwhelmed, the court should call on private attorneys to step up. But those who oppose public defenders at trial argue that gives too much power to their courtroom adversaries. Dwight Scroggins is the president of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys.

Mr. DWIGHT SCROGGINS (President, Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys): When the public defender system gets to decide which cases they will take - you know, we're taking cases now, now we're done - you know, you've taken the control of the court dockets away from judges and given it to the public defenders.

ALTMAN: Cat Kelly with the Missouri Public Defender Commission understands why the court's ruling will likely meet with some resistance. But she says public defenders deserve to have a caseload they can handle.

Ms. KELLY: We have some of the most passionate, caring lawyers, and it is so hard to watch them struggle with knowing they can't do what should be done on the cases that they have.

ALTMAN: Kelly says until something changes, defendants like Jennifer Sansoucie will continue to sit in jail, anxiously awaiting a visit from their public defender.

For NPR News, I'm Maria Altman in St. Louis.

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