Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Solution Exists for Missouri's Indigent Defense Crisis

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

A Solution Exists for Missouri's Indigent Defense Crisis

Article excerpt

The Missouri criminal court system is in big trouble. The system is swamped with cases, and the result is low quality, assembly-line justice. The problem has festered because those who suffer the most are poor people without any political power. A new lawsuit, however, may finally bring about pressure for reform.

The ACLU filed a class-action suit in March against state officials, claiming that Missouri faces "an urgent constitutional crisis." Noting that the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that every state must provide counsel for poor people who are accused of crimes but who can't afford an attorney, the suit contends that Missouri's criminal defense system "failed to meet its constitutional obligation to provide indigent defendants with meaningful representation."

Indeed, Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 states in per capita indigent defense funding, an average of only $356 per case. Missouri public defenders average just 8.7 hours per case for serious non-homicide felonies. This amounts to less than 20 percent of the minimum time recommended by the American Bar Association.

The ACLU claims that $20 million in additional funding is needed to bring the criminal defense system up to constitutional requirements. Unless there is a settlement, the courts will have to determine exactly how much funding is necessary. In the meantime, policymakers need to consider other reforms that can improve the justice system.

There is at least one example worth replicating. In 2012, big change came to the indigent defense system in Comal County, Texas. Instead of assigning attorneys to clients, the selection process was changed to give the accused a say in who represents him or her in court. Inspired by similar programs in the U.K. and Canada, the Texas Indigent Defense Commission assembled a team of judges, law professors and practicing attorneys to design and implement America's first ever Client Choice program.

Under Client Choice, indigent defendants are allowed to select their own attorney from a list approved by local judges. …

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