Friday, September 10, 2010

Missouri public defender system in crisis

Monica Davey reports in today's New York Times, dateline Ozark, Missouri, population 9,665, "Budget Woes Hit Defense Lawyers for the Indigent." Davey points out, public defenders in various jurisdictions have sued their state and local governments over the size of caseloads, sometimes refusing to take new cases. Her focus, however, is on Missouri, and the case of Jared Blacksher. She writes"

Last week, Jared Blacksher found his case sent to the Missouri Supreme Court — not over the accusations that he had stolen prescription pain pills and a blank check, but over the issue of whether the state’s public defender system is in such dismal shape that it ought not be forced to represent him.
The Christian County judge presiding over the case rejected the public defender's request not to be assigned the case, stating: “It flies in the face of our Constitution ... .It flies in the face of our culture. It flies in the face of the reason we came over here 300 and some-odd years ago to get out of debtors’ prison.” But the Missouri Supreme Court disagreed last week, temporarily rescinding the assignment of public defenders to Mr. Blacksher’s case until the state high court can consider legal briefs on the matter.

Ozark is in Christian County, population 72,707, which is part of the Springfield, Missouri Metropolitan area. While Christian County is a smallish, micropolitan county, the crisis there does not appear to be directly related to the place's rurality because Missouri is one of 28 states that funds it public defender system entirely at the state level, rather than at the county level. (For a discussion of the particular problems that rural counties face when they must fund this service at the county level, click here). Nevertheless, the fact that Christian County is part of a three-county district, one of just two districts in the state that began to refuse new indigent clients this summer, could suggest that the state's allocation of resources does not serve less populous counties very well. Now, nine other districts' public defenders are turning away new cases, but Davey reports nothing about the character of these districts or how the state may be allocated resources among districts.

Meanwhile, the prosecuting attorney for Christian County suggests that the public defenders simply aren't working hard enough, and that they should think about working longer hours. The state auditor has announced that she will examine the public defender system to determine if it is, in fact, overburdened.

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