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Chief Missouri Justice Urges More Funding For Public Defenders, Court Technology In Annual Address

The chief justice of the Missouri Supreme Court says the state needs to properly fund its public defender system to continue the criminal justice reforms it has passed in the past several years.

Speaking to a joint session of the state Legislature on Wednesday for his first State of the Judiciary address, Chief Justice George Draper applauded the General Assembly for boosting access to treatment courts and allowing more individuals to enter diversion programs. However, he cautioned those reforms can only go so far.

“If criminal cases cannot be moved efficiently through the system because of overloaded attorneys, we risk leaving those who are guilty on the street; those who are not guilty unable to return to being productive members of our society; and victims and their families powerless to find closure and move forward with their lives,” Draper said.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri sued the state in federal court in 2017, alleging that the high caseloads violate the rights of defendants who cannot afford an attorney. A judge still has to approve a deal reached by the state public defenders and the ACLU. Attorney General Eric Schmitt is trying to challenge the settlement.

Also in his speech, Draper asked the General Assembly for additional money to finish upgrading the state’s court case-management system. The current one is 25 years old and will likely reach the end of its useful life within 18 months.

Court staff should be able to get all criminal cases into the new system by June 30, the end of the current budget year, Draper said.

“But to continue developing the system at a viable pace, to protect against cyber threats, and to implement more user-friendly features for our citizens, we are asking you to consider an additional $2.8 million in funding as you plan Missouri’s fiscal 2021 budget,” he said.

The new system allows defendants to sign up for text and email reminders about a case and, in some instances, plead guilty and pay fines electronically. Soon, Draper said, people who want to dispute a ticket will be able to file certain documents and message with the prosecutor on their cellphones.

Gov. Mike Parson’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the additional funding requests. Bills outlining the state budget have yet to be introduced.

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