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Missouri Attorney General: Felons Will Go Free If Public Defenders Have Their Way

The lawsuit alleges that Missouri has failed to adequately fund and staff its public defender system.

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt says a proposed deal to reduce public defender workloads doesn’t protect the interests of the public, and he wants permission to intervene in the case.

Schmitt said Tuesday that the deal, which sets maximum caseloads for the state’s 500-plus public defenders, “would allow untold numbers of alleged felons to avoid criminal prosecution.”

A federal court must sign off on the deal between the ACLU of Missouri and the public defender system. It was disclosed Monday as part of a motion to settle a class-action lawsuit filed by the ACLU more than two years ago. 

The lawsuit alleged that by failing to adequately fund and staff the public defender system, Missouri had not met its constitutional obligation to provide poor defendants with meaningful legal representation.

Only Mississippi spends less than the $355 per case that Missouri allocated at the time the suit was filed, which the lawsuit said led to "devastating" consequences. 

The proposed settlement would allow public defenders to turn down cases in order to stay within a time limit based on how much work should be spent defending different types of crimes. It also calls for defendants to be screened quickly to see whether they qualify for a public defender.

Schmitt said the deal was negotiated in secrecy and “harms the indigent citizens that rely on the State for representation and could threaten public safety at the same time.”

“My job is to represent the people of Missouri, and they deserve to have a voice in this matter. Legislation by consent decree is an unacceptable way to conduct business,” Schmitt said in a news release.

ACLU of Missouri's legal director and interim executive director Tony Rothert said Schmitt had mischaracterized the settlement proposal.

“The attorney general's characterization of the proposed consent judgment fairly well evidences that his office hasn't been paying attention to the case very closely,” Rothert said.  

Michael Barrett, who oversees the state's public defender system, declined to comment on pending litigation.

The case is scheduled to go to trial in August, unless the judge overseeing the case approves the settlement.

In January, a federal appeals court ruled that the state of Missouri and the governor could not be sued and dismissed them from the case. The suit, however, continued against Barrett and the other members of the public defender commission.

The appeals court's decision ruled out the possibility of forcing the Missouri General Assembly to appropriate more money for the system. But if the case does go to trial, the court could order the commission to reduce public defenders’ caseloads or take other steps to alleviate their workload.

It's not clear whether Schmitt will be granted the right to intervene in the case. He argues that because the proposed settlement would impact the state’s entire criminal justice system, he should be allowed to intervene as a matter of right.

Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.

Dan Margolies has been a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star, and KCUR Public Radio. He retired as a reporter in December 2022 after a 37-year journalism career.
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