In Missouri, public defenders struggle with high workload, low pay

Photo courtesy of Creative Commons
Photo courtesy of Creative Commons

Low-income Missourians have had the right to a public defender for half a century. It is a right relayed during every arrest made. But with funding at its lowest level in four years, the state’s 376 public defenders are overworked and underpaid, statistics suggest.

Public defenders in Missouri juggle 130 to 150 cases at any given time. Together, the state’s public defenders handle about 100,000 cases per year.

A 2014 study of the state’s system found that public defenders were spending an average of 27.3 hours less than deemed sufficient to provide reasonably effective counsel in various cases. Based on the study’s conclusions, the state system needs almost 270 additional attorneys to meet the current needs based on last budget year’s caseload data.

A 2011 compilation of salary data shows that three-year veterans of Missouri’s public defender system made less than $46,000 a year — a figure lower than all eight surrounding states. By this year, that three-year salary average had risen to $50,341.

Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, asked Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, this summer to give the public defender program an additional $10 million in the supplement to the current year’s budget.

Nixon’s office says they haven’t determined that budget recommendation, but evidence suggests such an increase is unlikely.

Read more from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch

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