About two years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a class-action lawsuit against Missouri for the way it treats poor defendants and the public defenders who represent them in court.
Well, the ACLU and the public defender system made an agreement, and they’re not waiting on a federal judge to seal the deal — but Missouri’s Attorney General Eric Schmitt is apparently quite unhappy about the proposed settlement. He has publicly stated that he wants to intervene to prevent the new agreement from going through and says that limiting the workloads of the state’s public defenders would be a disaster that lets “untold numbers of alleged felons to avoid criminal prosecution.” For their part, the ACLU said that the governor’s response showed that “his office hasn’t been paying attention to the case very closely.”
In reality, it isn’t good to be a poor defendant in Missouri’s criminal justice system without access to a private criminal defense attorney. Missouri allocates less money per defense case — $355 — than all other states save one. Only Mississippi spends less. Public defenders have been handling too many cases to be effective since at least 1993, and the situation hasn’t improved over the decades.
Aside from limits on the number of cases each public defender in the state has to carry at once, the agreement would set an outside monitor to create transparency and make certain that offices are complying. New standards would also be set for attorneys in the public defender’s role. They would be required to aggressively challenge the prosecution’s case before trial and not permitted to encourage guilty pleas just to get clients out of jail.
The consequences of the current broken public defense system for poor criminal defendants put every citizen at risk of a devastating — and avoidable — conviction. Many defendants simply give up and take a plea rather than sit in detention for months at a time. That leaves them with a criminal record and collateral damage that goes on for years.
If you’re charged with a crime or a loved one is arrested, get experienced legal help today.