This summer the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that public defenders may refuse new cases if they cannot handle the ones they have. At first, it sounds like a disaster for people who are accused of crimes and cannot afford a defense attorney. But it could pave the way for longer-term solutions for the state’s overloaded criminal justice system.
The court’s ruling shines a light on the failing combination of high caseloads and limited state resources. Public defenders in Missouri are swamped by constantly-growing caseloads, sometimes handling up to 200 criminal matters at a time. It’s an impossible burden to maintain. How the state handles its “caseload crisis” could have lasting implications for the state’s justice system, financial resources and prison population.
Everyone in the United States has certain fundamental rights if they are accused of a crime. These include the right to a thorough and vigorous defense by an attorney, whether privately retained or provided by the state. Unfortunately, public defenders are not able to provide a thorough defense to each case if they are handling hundreds at once.
Turning away criminal defendants is clearly not a viable long-term solution. If it goes on it could violate the constitutional rights of the accused and possibly create a backlog of even more cases. Short of hiring more public defenders, the state could lighten their burden by cutting down the number of cases going through the criminal justice system.
This could involve revisiting which crimes carry a possibility of jail time. Any offense that could result in a prison sentence, however short the sentence or unlikely that it will occur, entitles lower-income defendants to a public defender. Missouri’s prisons currently hold about 14,000 non-violent offenders, nearly double what they did 15 years ago. Re-classifying some non-violent offenses could lighten the loads of public defenders and help preserve justice for those accused of less serious crimes.
Source: St. Louis Public Radio, “Public Defenders Can Now Refuse Cases – But Seek Long-Term Solution,” Maria Altman, Sep. 26, 2012
Our firm handles all facets of criminal defense for those accused of DWI. For more information, please visit our St. Louis DWI Defense page.