Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Messenger: Public Defender Calls Nixon's Bluff over Woeful Budget Reality

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Messenger: Public Defender Calls Nixon's Bluff over Woeful Budget Reality

Article excerpt

The most important letter Michael Barrett wrote to Gov. Jay Nixon isn't the one in which he assigned the governor a case as a public defender.

That's what Barrett, the director of the state's public defender office, did Tuesday, using what he believes is his statutory authority to assign private attorneys to defend indigent clients. Barrett wrote the letter to Nixon to lambaste the governor for withholding millions of dollars in funding from the public defender office because state revenue has slowed.

For years now, the state's public defender system has been in crisis, underfunded by millions of dollars, leaving many poor Missourians accused of crimes without access to the competent legal representation guaranteed to them by the state and federal constitutions.

Last August, after the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice issued a damning report on how the St. Louis County Family Court treats poor children in part because of the state's public defender crisis Barrett also wrote Nixon a letter.

That letter should be a must-read for the two candidates for Missouri governor, Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens.

In it, Barrett laments Missouri's ranking as 49th in the nation for funding its public defender system, and contrasts that with the massive increase in funding for the Department of Corrections under Nixon, a trend that started before the current governor was in office.

On one hand, this is a huge part of the national debate over criminal justice reform. When it comes to putting its people in prison, especially if they are poor and black, Missouri has few peers.

But the story here, as it relates to who is the next governor of Missouri, is bigger than the public defender's office and the need for criminal justice reform.

The Show-Me State is developing a nagging habit of being at the bottom of all sorts of categories that indicate the state's priorities are upside-down.

Late last month, a new study found that Missouri's state workers are the lowest-paid in the nation. Nurses, social workers, corrections employees and, yes, public defenders, are all scraping the bottom of the barrel in Missouri compared to every other state. …

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