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MO Supreme Court chief: ‘System simply does not work’ without public defender funding | The Kansas City Star

By Crystal Thomas January 22, 2020 07:15 PM

Missouri’s new Supreme Court chief justice implored lawmakers Wednesday to pay more attention to funding the state’s public defender system.

Judge George Draper III, delivering the judiciary’s annual address, said he spoke from his decade-long experience as prosecutor in the city of St. Louis.

Missouri has historically had the worst-funded public defender system in the country, and its attorneys have sounded the alarm for years. In 2019, its more than 380 attorneys handled 75,000 cases, with fewer than 1 percent heard by a jury.

An investigation by The Star last year found a broken system where defendants can languish in jail for years waiting for their the day in court. Defenders spend fewer hours and resources on each client, undercutting their pledge to provide “effective counsel.”

Judges have ordered public defenders to violate their ethics to keep taking cases. Innocent people have been convicted and spent decades in prison.

Draper, the second African-American to serve on the state’s highest court, introduced himself as “the great-grandson of a North Carolina slave girl and a union soldier” on his mother’s side and “a dark-skinned black man from Florida and third-generation German immigrant woman from New Jersey” on his father’s side.

Wednesday was the first time Draper addressed both chambers of the legislature, along with statewide elected officials, since beginning his two-year tenure. The chief justice, who is elected by his peers and serves on rotating basis, supervises the court’s administrative functions.

Draper lauded increased funding by lawmakers to help establish more drug treatment and veterans courts, as well as upgrade outdated technology.

Reforms made last year to bail, prosecution agreements, and record expungement were “likely to make a positive impact on the lives” of Missouri citizens, he added.

“But if criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street, those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of society, and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives,” Draper said.

“Together, we all share the burden of our state constitutional mandate demanding that ‘justice shall be administered without sale, denial or delay.’”

Lawmakers have begun to grapple with how much the state should fund the system in the next budget year that begins July 1.

In the governor’s proposed budget, the public defender system would receive a 2.6 % increase, or $1.4 million, over last year’s appropriation. That would put total support at $53 million, falling short of the system’s requested $61 million.

The Missouri House Budget Committee on Wednesday heard from the newly appointed head of the public defender system, Mary Fox.

Fox, who previously led the system’s St. Louis city trial office, told legislators that she plans on requesting money to hire private attorneys on contract to help with system’s wait list.

The number of cases on the wait list has “grown beyond 5,000,” she said.

“It’s not going to go away,” Fox said. “It’s going to be a continued problem. If we don’t get resources within the offices to handle the cases, the wait list will continue to grow.”

Fox praised lawmakers for funds to open offices — one in St. Louis and the other Kansas City — that solely help juvenile defendants. In the last year, 38 percent of the cases handled by the offices have either led to dismissed charges or acquittals.

“Each of those children was looking at probably 9 months in the division of youth services,” Fox said. “Simply by the effective and efficient representation, we have saved the state of Missouri over $2 million in the cost of housing those children if they had been found guilty and sent to the division of youth services.”