Missouri State Public Defender’s Office
The waitlist was first created in 2017. In 2020, more than 5,800 cases awaited a public defender to be assigned, and the Missouri legislature approved funding for 53 public defender hires to eliminate the waitlist.
After hiring approximately 43 attorneys, the office successfully emptied the waitlist earlier than its end-of-year deadline by Nov. 30, 2021.
She was surprised to find herself in her current role and still considers herself as a courtroom attorney first. She credits the executive directors before her with laying the data groundwork for what she was able to accomplish this year.
“It wasn’t that no one else could get it done,” Fox said. “It’s that it took a while to get done. And by the time, you know, everything was completed, I happened to be the person who was in the director’s job.”
She credits former executive directors J. Marty Robinson, who improved data collection on caseload studies; Cat Kelly, who improved caseload numbers and worked with the American Bar Association to complete “The Missouri Project: A Study of the Missouri Public Defender System and Attorney Workload Standards” in 2014 that produced even more concrete data to support funding requests; and Michael Barrett, who communicated the office’s increasing need for more support staff.
The number of public defenders across the state fluctuates weekly by 15-20 positions. Fox is working to boost retention by encouraging Missouri lawmakers to approve funding for hiring 18 more legal assistants and 18 more investigators to assist with non-legal work, which some public defenders must do if they are juggling their caseloads alone.
She’s asking state government to increase public defenders’ base salaries. And for the next state budget proposal, she is also asking legislators to approve an increase in the amount of grant and gift money that the MSPD can receive.
Fox said that legislators have been receptive to her requests. Years of data allow Fox to point to the office’s specific needs and show legislators exactly how they can provide funding for solutions.
And she’s just getting started.