Court Ruling Takes Aim at Public Defenders Turning Away Clients

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LAWRENCE COUNTY, Mo. — The right to a public defender is a constitutional guarantee that some Missourians are being denied.

A public defender shortage is the reason some our state’s citizens don’t get representation.

The Missouri Supreme Court is hoping to change that, ruling last week, that despite being overworked, public defenders must get a judge’s permission before turning away clients.

KOLR10 visited the Lawrence County jail to see how the problem is affecting inmates.

It seems everyone in the state has been dealt a short deck of cards, which keeps getting smaller, as it makes its way from the dealer, to the state’s players.

“The public defender’s office is at a historically limited capacity right now,” Criminal Defense Attorney Adam Woody said.

As a result, he says public defenders have started to deny clients. It’s an unconstitutional practice, but it’s something the Lawrence County sheriff realizes is a desperate one.

“Where do you fund them and with what do you fund them, if there’s nothing available,” Lawrence County Sheriff Brad DeLay said.

When the judicial process slows down, spending at local jails, like the already overcrowded one in Lawrence County, speeds up.

“We have to house them, feed them, clothe them, take care of their medical issues, so all that stuff just continues to add up,” he said.

The chain doesn’t stop there. Woody says priority for a public defender usually goes to those already in custody, but the shortage is so severe, even some inmates lack representation.

“I know here in Greene County many of the public defenders are up to around 250 cases, and those are all criminal cases that require attention,” Woody said. “And that’s a lot of cases for one attorney to handle, no doubt about it.”

That’s where the Missouri Supreme Court ruling comes in. Public defenders must now get permission from a judge to turn away clients. It’s a rule that a 2013 statute already mandated, but many offices have ignored the rule. The sheriff is hoping this ruling will carry more weight. If not, he has a different plan.

“We just need a pot of gold from some little leprechaun,” DeLay said.

He says no one’s looking for a “get out of jail free” card, just simply, a full deck.

If a judge does, in fact, determine that a public defender cannot take on more cases, Woody says the state will have to figure out another way to find representation. That could mean appointing a private attorney to work pro bono.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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