Judge finds Missouri’s public defender waiting list unconstitutional; gives legislature four months to fix it

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Published: Feb. 19, 2021 at 5:28 PM CST
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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (KFVS) - On February 18, 2021, Judge Willaim Hickle ruled that placing people on a waiting list for a public defender violates no only violates their U.S. Constitutional right to counsel and a speedy trial, but also violates the state constitutional right to counsel and a speedy public trial.

In February 2020, the American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU of Missouri, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a lawsuit to end the use of public defender waiting lists, alleging that more than 4,600 people were on the waiting list, and that the list was growing.

Hinkle found that the Missouri Public Defender Commission is currently underfunded, the public defenders are given enormous case loads.

According the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2016 public defenders had up to 590 cases per year, which is signicantly more than the 150 felonies, or 400 misdemeanors the 1973 U.S. Department of Justice’s National Advisory Commission advises.

In a 2020 article, the Associated Press found that some Missouri defendants had to wait for months or even years before they were assigned an attorney.

He the granted the state’s request to allow the legislature a chance to correct the issue. He gave them until July.

This response is precedented by a 1972 Missouri Supreme Court decision that corrected a similar issue, and created the current public defender system.

Governor Parson recommended the legislature approve a budget increase of $820,000, which was requested by the Missouri State Public Defender’s Office.

The funding would allow the office to hire 12 more public defenders.

The state must provide monthly status reports to Judge Hickle. The case will be back in court on July 1.

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