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Defenders hope workload study will bolster case

Prosecutors remain unconvinced of caseload crisis

Missouri’s public defenders have argued for years that they have too many cases for too few attorneys but have never been able to prove it. A newly released study of the defender system, they say, could be the long-sought key to reducing their caseload.

The study, released July 31 as a project of the Missouri State Public Defender System and the American Bar Association, recommended the number of hours the state’s public defenders should be spending on different types of cases but found that defenders are falling below those workload standards in all categories.

According to the report, Missouri’s public defenders should spend about 107 hours on each murder case, yet they actually spend less than 85 hours on average — about 79 percent of the recommended amount.

Time spent on other cases was far lower. For instance, defenders typically spent just 18 percent of the time on felony cases that they should.

Even relatively simple cases were shortchanged. The study suggested 12 hours of work for misdemeanors and 10 hours for probation violations, yet those categories only got about two hours on average.

In an interview, Cat Kelly, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, said she hopes the report — the latest of a series of examinations of the defender system in recent years —provides the data needed to provide relief.

“We’ve been studied and studied and studied and studied, and every study says the same thing,” she said. “At some point we have to stop studying and actually start fixing.”

But the state’s prosecutors, who have disputed the extent of the defender system’s problems, appear unconvinced. In a statement responding to the release of the report, the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys said it remains “skeptical of claims by the public defender management that their attorneys face a caseload crisis.”

The defenders’ caseload arguments date to at least 2006, when the ABA said that even lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients could face ethical violations if they failed to give each case the necessary attention and care. Unlike private attorneys or prosecutors, appointed defenders cannot turn away clients if their caseloads grow too high.

In 2010, the defender system implemented a rule that allowed overloaded defender district offices to refuse to take new cases. The Missouri Supreme Court upheld the rule, but lawmakers passed a bill in 2013 that stripped the system of such unilateral authority. Instead, the legislation allows district defenders to petition the local judge for caseload relief for its lawyers.

In the year since the bill’s passage into law, no offices have sought to use those provisions. In its statement, the prosecutor’s association said it was “not aware of any instance where public defenders have sought relief from their allegedly oppressive caseloads.”

“We need to give that procedure a realistic attempt to see if it’s going to work or not,” the association’s president, Stone County Prosecutor Matt Selby, said in an interview.

Kelly, however, said local defenders had been waiting for the results of the new study. The report will help local defender offices make their arguments to local judges, she said, but the report itself doesn’t mandate anything.

“It’s their experience and their expertise backed up by this report, corroborating that there’s a reason that we’re feeling the way we’re feeling,” Kelly said.

She added that the data also would shape future budget requests. Kelly estimated that the system would need at least another 200 positions to meet the hourly averages the report suggests, though she conceded that such an expansion won’t be granted anytime soon.

“It’s a pretty long leap from where we are right now,” she said. “We’d love to wave a wand and all of sudden that’s where we’re at, but that’s not going to happen.”

Alternatively, Kelly said lawmakers could remove the possibility of jail time from some low-level offenses, which would reduce the need to appoint public defenders in many cases. Lawmakers did so for some first-time misdemeanors in the 2013 bill, and this year they approved $3.5 million to contract cases to private attorneys. Gov. Jay Nixon, however, vetoed the funding as part of sweeping budget cuts.

The report was based on data from 25 weeks of daily time-entry logs that Missouri’s public defenders began keeping in 2013, as well as surveys of and detailed interviews with public defenders and private criminal defense attorneys. RubinBrown, a St. Louis-based accounting firm, prepared the study on behalf of the ABA Standing Committee on Legal Aid and Indigent Defendants.

Earlier efforts to document Missouri defenders’ caseloads were largely based on national standards that the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals set in 1973. But the age of those standards and their lack of Missouri-specific data has been criticized, most recently in a 2012 Missouri state audit. The audit found that the defender system “lacks sufficient information to accurately determine the resources needed to manage caseloads” and suggested that a “comprehensive analysis” be performed. The new study was conducted partially in response to that audit.

Although the target numbers in the study are specific to Missouri, the ABA said the methodology could be replicated in other states to set workload standards for those court systems.