Mo. lawmakers mull changes to public defenders

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Public defenders might no longer be responsible for the legal defenses of poor Missourians accused of some criminal offenses such as involuntary manslaughter, check kiting and forgery, under a proposal advancing in the Legislature.

Legislation approved this week by the Missouri House would require the public defender system to contract out for private attorneys to handle misdemeanors, traffic cases, probation or parole violations and the two lowest categories of felonies. Public defenders still would be responsible for sexual offenses and the cases of those charged with the two most serious categories of felonies.

"This saves the state from having to put a whole bunch of money into the system because that's the trajectory we were on," said sponsoring Rep. Stanley Cox, R-Sedalia. He anticipates the change would be cost-neutral.

Public defenders currently are responsible for defendants who cannot afford an attorney and face possible incarceration. That can include felonies, misdemeanors, and probation or parole violations.

A bill in the Senate also focuses on public defenders. Under that measure, people who cannot afford a lawyer would be represented by a public defender in probation or parole violation cases if the judge determines representation is necessary. The public defender system would represent those charged with misdemeanors when the prosecutor has requested a jail sentence.

The Senate legislation also would allow the public defender system to ask the presiding circuit court judge for a conference to discuss caseload issues. The judge could decide whether to grant relief.

Missouri's public defender system has received attention for years.

A special state legislative committee studied the public defender system in 2006. Lawmakers approved a bill three years later that would have allowed the Public Defender Commission to set maximum caseloads and establish waiting lists, but it was vetoed by Gov. Jay Nixon.

In recent years, the public defender system established maximum caseload standards for its offices and allowed the director to certify limited ability for new cases when the caseload limits are exceeded for three consecutive months. The public defender system eased off those caseload limits in December.

Joel Elmer, division director for the public defender system, said the Senate legislation takes a more reasonable approach.

Elmer said it can cost more to contract out to private attorneys. He estimated the House legislation could lead to contracting out about 61,000 of the public defender system's 84,000 cases and the reduction of 230 attorneys and 94 support staff. He said that could free up about $20 million but cost a total of roughly $30 million.

"It wouldn't solve the problem at all," Elmer said.

Prosecutors have questioned whether public defenders actually are more overloaded than others involved in the criminal justice system. The Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys praised both proposals and pledged to push lawmakers to pass meaningful legislation before the mandatory May 17 adjournment.

Lawmakers "have devised solutions that, together, make sure Missouri provides real meaning to the phrase, `You have the right to an attorney, even if you cannot afford one,"' said Platte County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Zahnd, who is the association president.

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