The Missouri Public Defender System had 5,800 cases waiting on a list for services last year. Missourinet is told that Director Mary Fox has no current clients on the waiting list.
“That doesn’t mean things are perfect. I want to make that clear, but we did make the decision to end the waiting list,” says Fox. “We are trying to use the new staff that we received from the budget in addition to funds that we have to make certain that everybody who applies is able to receive an attorney in a reasonable timeframe.”
Each year, the office receives approximately 60,000-80,000 cases.
The Missouri Legislature passed, and Gov. Mike Parson signed the Missouri Legislature into law. This budget included 53 public defense officers to help eliminate the waiting list.
The list was established in 2017. A court ruled in 2017 that the act of putting people on a waiting list for public defender services was a violation both of state and federal laws.
Fox’s goal was to eliminate the waiting list by the end of this year. She was able meet her goal earlier than expected. November 30 marked the end of the waiting list.
“It’s a celebration, but I should point out that we still have way too many attorneys who have responsibility for too many cases at any one time. I think it’s going to even out over time once we are fully staffed. But we received the new staff right at the same time as the great resignation,” she says. “We have had people resigning and retiring at the same time. We need to have enough staff to provide effective representation to all those who are eligible for a public defense attorney. We’re not there yet – but I’m hopeful.”
Fox reports that 43 lawyers have been hired thus far.
“We hired quite a few new attorneys this year and we’ve spent a lot of time training them. They are now receiving cases but you can’t say, ‘Hi. The Public Defender System is pleased to welcome you. Here’s 150 cases.’ You can but it’s not a good way to manage a system,” she says.
The office is still understaffed by 30 attorneys.
“If you’re an office with only five attorneys, and one is gone, that’s a big burden to shift to the other attorneys. So, we’re doing what we can to shift resources to make certain that we can provide representation. But as I look at the case numbers that our individual attorneys have, they’re still higher than what would be reasonable under ABA (American Bar Association) norms,” says Fox.
She says she’s thrilled with Gov. Mike Parson’s pursuit for a 5.5% cost of living adjustment and $15 minimum wage for all state workers by February 1. To become a reality, the Missouri Legislature would have to sign off on Parson’s recommendation. The next session of the Missouri Legislature begins on January 5.
“Salary has been an issue. While the Legislature granted us a salary hike several years back, our starting attorneys started at just under $50,000 per year. Our starting legal assistants began at just $15. I’m hoping that with the salary increases that will have an effect on recruitment – getting new people in the door – but also on retention – keeping folks in the system who know what they are doing and as a result, they are well trained and they can handle cases that we can just give to them as their responsibility, as opposed to just constantly bringing in new people.”
If approved by lawmakers the starting salary of public defenders will be around $52,000
There are also other benefits to being a public protector:
*Potential attractive salary increases
*Student loan forgiveness after ten years of service
*Continuing legal education required under Supreme Court rules would be at no cost to the employee
*Missouri Bar dues are paid for
In the System’s next state budget proposal, it is asking for an increase in the amount of money it can seek in grants and gifts. Fox states that Missouri’s statute must be amended to allow for the receipt and increase of such gifts.
The System also requests 18 additional legal assistants and investigators throughout the state.
“It’s fabulous to have the additional attorneys but we want to get those attorneys now to focus on the legal work – they are the only ones who can go to court and represent people in court. Because we are short on the support staff, they are often doing their own copying, their own mailing, their own investigation of the cases,” says Fox. “If we have sufficient legal assistants and investigators, then hopefully they can shift their focus to the legal aspects of their cases.”
Click here for more information about becoming a public defense attorney. here.
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