Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Audit Questions Defenders' Load; PUBLIC SAFETY

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Audit Questions Defenders' Load; PUBLIC SAFETY

Article excerpt

ST. LOUIS - A state audit released Wednesday challenges the way public defender offices across Missouri have calculated their workloads in deciding to turn away cases.

The report from state Auditor Tom Schweich's office has refueled a multiyear debate over whether the defenders are as overloaded as they claim.

The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys latched on to the audit and called claims of a crisis "a myth" and a money grab.

"The audit points out that the entire caseload methodology is based on incomplete data," said current president and Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd.

"That's significant because what is happening in jurisdictions all around is public defenders are refusing their constitutional obligation to represent Missouri's poorest citizens," he said, "but without any reliable data to support that extreme action."

State Public Defender Cat Kelly said that no matter how caseloads are calculated, the end of the equation is the same.

"The caseload problem is out of control and has to be addressed," she said Wednesday.

In 2008, the Public Defender Commission set a cap on the cases each local office takes on, allowing those that reach capacity to turn away indigent defendants.

After years of litigation, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled in August in support of the practice.

Since then, the State Public Defender System has placed 31 offices on limited availability for new cases - including the office for the 22nd Judicial Circuit in St. Louis, which became eligible Oct. 1.

More than two dozen others, including the one for the 21st Judicial Circuit, in St. Louis County, are exceeding capacity and could begin turning away cases next month.

Schweich's report calls for better tracking of time spent by each attorney on each case and a move away from more generic ways of calculating workload based on national standards. …

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