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ACLU sues state over public defender work

A “shockingly inadequate” budget has led to a public defender system that has little time to appropriately represent its clients.

The ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit Thursday in Cole County against Gov. Eric Greitens, Missouri State Public Defender Director Michael Barrett and others over this issue. The five plaintiffs, all from different parts of the state, have had experiences with the public defender, from former to current representation by that office.

ACLU legal director Tony Rothert told ABC 17 News that tens of thousands of people each year are “pushed through” the judicial system without proper legal counsel, taking pleas for crimes they may not have committed and losing their livelihood for months spent in jail. The petition details the plaintiffs’ own cases, including their lawyers’ lack of preparation at hearings and failure to meet with them beforehand.

“[The public defenders] are too overburdened and under-resourced to argue for their clients release from jail pending trial, and the result is constant injustice,” Rothert said.

The lawsuit calls for the court to require the defendants “top propose and implement, subject to this Court’s approval and monitoring, a plan to ensure that all indigent criminal defendants and juvenile respondents in the State of Missouri are provided with constitutionally adequate legal representation.”

Barrett made headlines last summer over his office’s lack of funding, which ranks 49th out of 50 states in per capita funding. He sued then-Gov. Jay Nixon over millions of dollars in withholdings to the MSPD, and even tried to appoint Nixon to a Cole County criminal case. Judges ruled against Barrett in both instances.

The ACLU’s lawsuit claims that public defenders only dedicated the necessary amount of time, 47 hours, to the A- and B-class felonies less than three percent of the time, based on time estimates by the American Bar Association. A series of reports dating back to 1993 warned of the growing workload of lawyers in the office, as recently as 2016, when the Sixth Amendment Center found indigent defense spending was just one-third of the 35-state average it took. Missourians pay $6.20 per resident for public defender services, while the average amounted to a little more than $18.

“The bottom line is the state of Missouri has a responsibility to provide adequate legal representation,” Rothert said.

Barrett defended his track record of fighting for more resources in the office. He told a legislative budget committee this year his office would need 333 attorneys to catch up to their workload – more than double the number of trial attorneys it currently employs.

” I’ve done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in,” Barrett told ABC 17 News. ” This issue has been studied countless times by numerous task forces, the American Bar Association, a national accounting firm, and the U.S. Department of Justice – all with the same conclusion – that the public defender needs twice its number of attorneys to handle the more than 80,000 cases that it is constitutionally responsible for each year. The state has very few constitutional obligations, but it has instead focused on adding state parks, increasing salaries for judges, and forming committees and task forces to study ad nauseam what we already know. It’s time for some leadership.”

Greitens pledged to restore $2.5 million that Nixon withheld for the office, dedicated to conflict cases the public defenders office faces in next year’s budget. Rothert credited Barrett for trying “creative” methods to alleviate the workload issues, but as head of the public defenders office, needed to be held responsible for what was happening there. Rothert said more attorneys may not be the only solution to handle the workload.

“In a way, the easiest way is to add more attorneys working on cases,” Rothert said. “But as we keep charging more and more people in Missouri with crimes and adding to the size of our criminal justice system, that’s going to be a growing problem.”

(Editor’s note, 3/11: A previous version of the story indicated that Gov. Greitens released $2.5 million withheld from the public defender’s office. Greitens promised to restore funds in next year’s budget. ABC 17 News regrets the error.)

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