Missouri public defenders understaffed and in a crisis - KMOV.com

Missouri public defenders understaffed and in a crisis

(KMOV) - Public defenders in Missouri are in a crisis, as they're overworked and understaffed at risk of closing their doors.

Taking a stroll through the halls of the St. Louis public defender's office reveals one crowded desk after another. Working at 130 percent capacity, this particular office is not even the worst in Missouri.

"We've just sort of reached the point where we're rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic and everybody's going under and we don't have any place to move from," says Cat Kelly, Missouri Public Defender Department Director

The last time the public defenders' office was fully funded was 1989. Its lawyers are constitutionally required to provide a level of service, but with such a heavy caseload, corners are being cut, as in one case from Springfield.

"The lab report said there was nothing to test. It was a rape case. Nothing to be tested for D.N.A. So the lawyer never got the lab notes behind it. He just took it as face value and moved on," Kelly says. "They went to trial and the man was convicted. Nine years later, a private lawyer in post conviction counsel actually took the step our lawyers are supposed to take, got those lab notes, there was a mistake, there acutally was something to be tested and he was exonerated."

An innocent man going to jail means a guilty one goes free. The excess workload puts the system, and individual lawyers, at risk for class action lawsuits from defendants, and clogs up the entire criminal and civil court system for everyone.

To lawsuits from happening, the courts, prosecutors and defenders are looking at options such as fines or community service.

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