Missouri’s Top Public Defender Sends Fiery Letter To Governor, Assigns Him A Case

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon speaks during a news conference at the conclusion of the legislative session CREDIT: AP PHOTO/JEFF ROBERSON

Missouri’s head public defender is fed up with the governor’s failure to fund the state’s public defender system. Unable to hire the attorneys he needs, he’s assigned a case to the man he says both created the problem, and is in the position to fix it: Missouri governor Jay Nixon.

In an open letter to Governor Nixon, Michael Barrett laid out his case. Seven years ago, he says, the governor vetoed a bill that would have relieved pressure on the state’s overburdened public defender system, promising help would come and acknowledging that the system was overburdened.

Barrett told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that his systems caseload has gone up 12 percent to about 82,000 cases, but despite a study study finding that the state needed 270 more lawyers to meet its needs — hundreds more than the office currently employs — Barrett says he doesn’t even have the funds to retain the lawyers he has. That leaves each of the state public defenders handling 125 to 200 cases at a time.

In his letter, Barrett also cites a Civil Rights Division report finding that poor black children in Missouri are being systematically deprived of their rights, due to the lack of public defenders, and says that further cutting the program after the report “only adds to the escalating sentiment that the poor and disenfranchised do not receive a fair shake in Missouri’s criminal justice system.”

Using the Missouri law that says under extreme circumstances, he can assign a case to anyone in the state’s bar, Barrett appointed Nixon counsel to an indigent man in Cole County. There’s no indication yet of what the governor intends to do, but it’s clear that the letter is about far more than the one case.

The right to a lawyer is constitutionally protected, even for those who can’t afford one. However, America’s public defense system writ large is overburdened and underfunded, hobbling the system and leaving poor Americans without competent or attentive lawyers. Missouri’s case, according to Barrett, is exceptionally dire, however, it’s by no means the only state without a functioning public defense system.

A 2012 Brennan Center for Justice report found that public defenders, on average, spent less than 6 minutes with their clients before their clients pled guilty, which has likely been exacerbated after budget sequesters hit public defense offices much harder than prosecutors. Often, the poor meet their lawyer only after bail has been set, leaving them sitting in jail for months. Sometimes, lawyers don’t have time to have conversations with their clients about exonerating evidence, let alone pulling expert witnesses. Poor Americans end up spending months of unnecessary time in jail.

The failure of the public defense system is not due to a lack of compassion or skill on the part of many public defenders. There just simply aren’t enough resources, and thus lawyers, to go around — leaving most poor Americans with only the illusion of a lawyer, left to navigate the system on their own.