Conference set to address caseload for overburdened Miller County public defender

A caseload conference is set for an overwhelmed Miller County public defender (Ashley Zavala/KRCG).

A Miller County judge Monday granted a caseload conference for a public defender who says he's overburdened with cases.

Public Defender Justin Carver, Prosecuting Attorney Ben Winfrey and Judge Kenneth Hayden are scheduled to meet Friday December 22 at 1 p.m. to potentially discuss remedies.

Monday's order was the result of a request Carver filed in more than 30 cases involving people he represents in Miller County.

Carver has said his office has about 300 open cases in Miller County, 220 of which are his.

Carver told the judge his Area 19 office (which covers Cole, Moniteau and Miller counties) has seven assistant public defenders, three support staff members and one investigator.

Carver told the judge he first noticed his office had a caseload problem when he took over the office in 2014. He said he made several changes as an administrator, including hiring to fill vacancies, requesting more funding and positions, as well as changing the screening process for those who qualify to be represented by his office. The state public defender agency gave Carver an additional support staff member and some more funding, but Carver told the judge, it didn't help.

Carver told Judge Hayden in December of 2016, some lawyers in his office came to him saying they were going to quit if the office didn't take control of its caseload. As a result, Carver said his office has been shorthanded one to two lawyers for nearly a year. He said his recent hires are either fresh out of law school or new to the practice of law. Carver noted his investigator is on paternity leave until January and one of his assistant public defenders is mobilized on military duty until next summer. Carver projects his office will remain understaffed until July 2018.

Carver has spent the last several months filing motions to decline representation for recent Miller County cases.

"I feel like I've done everything administratively," Carver said. "I'm robbing Peter to pay Paul to make sure each county has public defenders."

Carver told Judge Hayden his personal caseload has spiraled out of control, and that he feels he's not effective on his current cases.

"I'll have clients sit in jail for months before talking to them," said Carver.

Carver said the state public defender agency has no more money or lawyers to give his office.

Winfrey opposed Carver's request, citing the state statute upon which he filed the request is not meant to be a remedy for the entire office. He noted the law applies to one attorney. Winfrey also said Carver's request didn't say specifically why each case would have inadequate representation.

Winfrey told Judge Hayden he thinks the answer to the public defender agency's caseload problems is found in the legislature and not in the statute.

"I don't believe any such conference should take place," Winfrey said.

In response, Carver said for the state statute to suggest only one public defender "defies all common sense."

"Right now, I'm the only lawyer with cases in Miller County," Carver argued. "I'm the person affected by the motion."

Because Carver's request originally did not want the involvement of the prosecuting attorney, the judge denied his request for caseload conference. Carver agreed to request the conference in accordance with the statuatory language, which involves the prosecuting attorney.

"I would like him to establish why exactly they can't take these cases," Winfrey said.

Carver said he's also filed caseload conference requests in Cole County. A presiding judge there has the issue under advisement, Carver said.

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