Caseload problems persist for local public defenders

Stuffed file folders sit on a desk at the Cole, Moniteau and Miller County public defender's office in Jefferson City. (Ashley Zavala/KRCG).

The public defender for Cole, Moniteau and Miller Counties said Monday lawyers in his office are no longer voluntarily entering any cases and are requesting judges appoint new cases to other lawyers.

Public Defender Justin Carver said his office is splitting about 800 cases between six lawyers, and this year the case load has reached an overwhelming number.

"It's not fair," said Carver. "We tell people, 'you've got a right to a lawyer. If you can't afford one, one will be appointed for you.' Frankly, right now, in Missouri, we need to qualify that and say [the lawyer appointed to you] is going to be so busy and so overwhelmed, they might not do you any good."

Carver said turnover in his office has been a major problem. He said more than half of the cases in his office have been internally reassigned this year. Carver said this year has been especially challenging with the absence of two lawyers and an investigator out on paternity leave. Carver said one of the vacant attorney positions has been filled, and the new lawyer is set to start the 12th of November.

"A lot of people I talk to about this have had a hard time wrapping their head around how we need 300 more lawyers across the state. Well, it's because we've been neglected the last 20 years," said Carver.

Carver noted recent action by the Missouri Supreme Court overwhelms public defender offices even more. While some judges have threatened to hold public defenders in contempt if they don't take on cases assigned to them, the state supreme court disciplined a public defender in Boone County for neglecting clients as a result of a high case load.

Carver noted legislative-led studies and investigations into the public defender system as well as lawsuits involving public defenders, including the American Civil Liberties Union's suit against the state. As an employee of the public defender's office for 16 years, Carver said he doesn't know what else needs to happen for a permanent solution.

"There are people sitting in jail right now without a lawyer, and if that were my kid, I would be really, very angry," Carver said.

close video ad
Unmutetoggle ad audio on off