Prosecutors say they too are overloaded with cases -

Prosecutors say they too are overloaded with cases

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) -- Prosecutors told leaders in Missouri's legal community that overwhelming caseloads and other problems plaguing public defenders are also burden those seeking convictions.

St. Louis Circuit Attorney Circuit Attorney Jennifer Joyce told Missouri Bar leaders meeting Friday that prosecutors also struggle with full caseloads, high turnover, low salaries and other problems facing public defenders. Prosecutors should be included in efforts to help public defenders, Joyce said.

The Bar has an obligation to "look at the system as a system and to not pour all our resources and energy into one part of it -- to the detriment of the other parts," she said.

Missouri Bar leaders began trying without much success to address problems with the public defender system in 2005. Since then, a special legislative committee has studied the issue, lawmakers have approved legislation and rules have been adopted to reduce caseloads.

Earlier this year, legislation was approved to allow the Public Defender Commission to set caseload limits and establish waiting lists to be assigned a lawyer. It also would have allowed trials to proceed for misdemeanor offenses without a public defender if prosecutors weren't pursuing any jail time.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill, saying it could have shifted more work to courts and prosecutors and burdened defendants and crime victims.

The Missouri Supreme Court is now considering challenges to new administrative rules established by the commission that would allow public defenders to reject certain cases when their workloads exceed professional standards. The high court has not ruled on a lawsuit challenging whether the commission has authority to do that.

Doug Copeland, a Public Defender Commission member, told Bar leaders Friday that he does not have much hope left about resolving the problems.

"We have a situation in Missouri that allows an attorney who works for the public defender system to be required to take a case when he knows it's unethical to do so and there's nothing he can do about it except quit," Copeland said. "And we've got to find a solution for that."

A study issued last month by the Spangenberg Group and the Center for Justice, Law and Society at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., warned there had been little improvement since 2005 and Missouri's public defender system has been pushed "to the brink of collapse."

But prosecutors question those findings. Joyce told Missouri Bar leaders there is reason for concern about the public defenders system, but prosecutors haven't seen the level of crisis described in the report.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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