Facing a financial crisis and critical shortage of attorneys, the public defender for the State of Missouri utilized a little known but valid state law to assign a case to the Governor of the state. I love this story and the outside the box thinking. It is well known that the State must provide an attorney to defend those accused of a crime, but budget cuts and lack of interest in public defense has put most states in a critical position, none more than Missouri. The State of Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 states in public defense spending and efficiency. One report suggests that they need to hire at least 270 new attorneys just to keep up with demand and tread water. The long serving Governor has repeatedly cut the public defense budget and reneged on promises to support the firm and increase the budget. Recently that same Governor cut a promised 4.7 million dollar financial boost to just 1 million dollars. Fed up, the Public Defender tapped into a law on the books that says in the face of a crisis the public defender has authority to assign defense cases to any member of the bar in good standing. Since the Missouri Governor is a licensed attorney who previously worked for the Attorney Generals office, the public defender assigned him a case!!
We are very often asked about the Public Defenders in our office. Are they good attorneys? Should I trust them with my case? Maybe I should just go to the Public Defender? It is a common question and since private defense attorneys are expensive, we understand. The reality is that the attorneys who work for the public defender are mostly excellent attorneys and some of them are the best criminal defense attorneys in the State. They are, however, tremendously overworked and under ridiculous budget restrictions. For one, RI public defenders could easily handle 3-4000 cases a year. Thats a staggering number of criminal defense cases that no attorney could handle properly. If you are with the public defender you will not have a chance to meet with the attorney prior to your first court date. You will only have a few minutes to talk to your attorney during the entire procedure. This is not because they are unprofessional or uncaring but because your case is one of 20 they have to handle that day. Second, they are financially handcuffed. Public defenders need permission to even copy large files or take depositions. There simply isn’t enough money in the budget.
In short, only a private criminal defense attorney can give you careful attention and review your case thoroughly. We will not take financial shortcuts and will be sure to hire expert witnesses, additional independent tests, or other expenses that might help prove your innocence.
I love this story from Missouri because it highlights the problem (RI is in a tough spot but not as bad as Missouri) and puts it directly in the lap of those responsible for the conditions. It reveals the problems the public defenders office face in properly representing their clients and obtaining good results.