Twenty-first Circuit Presiding Judge Weighing Proposals to Avert Public Defender Crisis for Indigent Defendants in St. Louis County

Wait list, help from private attorneys, streamlining criminal processing among options
to help manage caseloads, avoid ethical dilemmas for public defenders and courts

CLAYTON, MO – Feb. 20, 2018 – Against a backdrop of looming public defender crises across the state, St. Louis County Presiding Judge Douglas R. Beach has 30 days to rule on a motion by the Missouri State Public Defender’s office to avert a similar crisis in St. Louis County by creating a public defender wait list, triaging probation violations, or enlisting the help of private attorneys to represent indigent defendants.

The recommendations were presented to the court last week by Stephen Reynolds, who heads the state public defender office for the 21st Judicial Circuit, at a hearing attended by St. Louis County prosecutors, judges and private attorneys in Judge Beach’s courtroom. The 21st Judicial Circuit is the largest and busiest circuit in the state of Missouri. In 2017, nearly 89,000 civil and criminal cases were filed1, ranging from child abuse and neglect, to small claims, divorce and landlord tenant disputes, to multi-million-dollar civil litigation and first-degree murder trials.
As a result of chronically heavy caseloads, the 16 state public defenders assigned to handle thousands of cases a year in St. Louis County are caught between their constitutional obligation to handle every indigent case and their ethical obligation to provide effective counsel, Reynolds said. Workloads – some double and triple nationally recommended standards – also are putting the public defenders at risk of violating the Missouri Supreme Court Rules of Professional Conduct, he said.

A lawyer in private practice would have three options if caseloads got too high, Reynolds said: hire more lawyers, raise prices, or refuse the work. None of those options are available to the Missouri public defender system, which has been underfunded and overburdened for decades.

The workload of Missouri public defenders has come under heightened scrutiny since a Missouri Supreme Court decision last year to place a longtime public defender in Columbia on probation for violating rules of professional conduct regarding diligence and client communication. Officials with the public defender office in St. Louis County contend their employees face a similar dilemma, putting them at risk of discipline for taking on excessive caseloads they can neither refuse nor handle adequately.

The Supreme Court’s decision followed numerous high-profile battles over state funding for the legal defense of those too poor to hire their own lawyers. In some parts of the state, public defenders have repeatedly refused to accept new cases. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit last year claiming the state has failed to meet its constitutional obligation to adequately fund indigent defense.

Michael Barrett, who heads the office of the Missouri State Public Defender, recently announced plans to completely privatize the Texas County public defender’s office. Starting March 1, judges there will contract with private lawyers to represent indigent defendants, with the state footing the bill.

The wait list proposed for St. Louis County would apply only to clients who are not in custody, Reynolds said. It would be triggered when a public defender’s caseload exceeded a number designated by the court, with priority for representation given to those on the wait list the longest.
Beach is also being asked to consider a proposal to create a system for appointing private attorneys to represent indigent defendants in minor drug cases, criminal non-support cases, and class C, D and E felonies.

If private attorneys are called upon, the Court and the Public Defender will help get them up to speed in areas of law outside their fields of expertise, by providing free training sessions.

Prosecutors take a different view; they say they also handle a large number of cases, and that a heavy workload is no excuse for refusing to take cases or provide effective representation. Bart Calhoun, Chief Trial Attorney for the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, said putting people charged with crimes on a wait list, “stuck out there with no representation for who knows how long,” was a bad idea.

Calhoun also contended that last Friday’s hearing itself was a violation of Missouri Statute 600.063, which attempts to limit the public defender’s office as a whole from seeking relief for heavy caseloads; only individual defenders can make such requests, Calhoun argued. He also disputed that high caseloads for some public defenders were tantamount to inadequate representation.

Judge Beach said he and other St. Louis County judges have been in discussions since last fall with the public defender’s office, prosecutors, the office of probation and parole, law enforcement and lawyers in private practice to develop solutions that will avert the kind of crisis seen in other public defenders’ offices throughout the state. Among the options under consideration are ways to streamline the County’s multi-step criminal processing system, so that individuals who pose no threat to public safety, but may have been detained for a technical violation, can be released more quickly.

In addition, Judge Beach has contacted numerous bar association in the state to solicit suggestions and help in representing indigent clients.

“We have been working in good faith for months with all stakeholders,” Judge Beach said. “I am confident that we can reach a consensus on solutions that will make our court system more efficient, while honoring our ethical and legal obligations to the public.”



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[1] FY 2017 Profile – 21st Circuit, Missouri Office of State Courts Administrator