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Missouri Public Defenders Pay High Price To Ensure Clients Are Innocent Until Proven Guilty

Jamie Hobbs
KCUR 89.3
Ruth Petsch leads 35 attorneys in the Kansas City public defenders office. They're currently assigned around 4,000 cases, which she says is too many cases for her staff to handle.

Public defense attorneys are often overworked and underpaid, leaving them vulnerable to negative mental health consequences.

“I have a number of lawyers who will talk about their anxiety… waking up at night, or family issues,” says Ruth Petsch, who oversees the Kansas City public defenders office.

Each of the office's 35 attorneys is assigned 100 or more cases, and the pressure is steadily getting worse.

Petsch says many attorneys express feelings of isolation because of the nature of their work. She encourages them to take time off and seek mental health care when they need it. Several of the attorneys are currently in therapy, she says, but others simply can’t find the time to go.

The same thing is true in the state office, where Missouri Public Defender Director Michael Barrett emphasizes his attorneys' work ethic. “They get annual leave every year, vacation time, and they don’t take it,” he says.

Barrett says he has tried to sound the alarm to Missouri legislators many times, and not just for the sake of his attorneys. 

“It's my obligation to fulfill the state's constitutional obligation to make sure that poor people who are charged with a criminal offense and face loss of liberty have a competent attorney,” Barrett says.

“We’re taking care of people who are incarcerated and need to get out. Who are only in on nonviolent offenses and are losing their jobs and their housing each day they sit in jail. Those are the pressures that our lawyers take home with them every day,” he says.

“This is the perfect recipe for burnout, and burnout, if unchecked and untreated, will eventually lead to a suicidal potential,” says Greg Nawalanic, a psychologist with the University of Kansas Health System. He says that when people don’t focus on self-care, they’re not going to be as productive or effective in their work.

Nawalanic says taking control of one’s mental health is essential, even when it’s viewed as an inconvenience. When “mental health issues are unchecked overtime, people eventually give up,” he says, adding that anyone harboring suicidal thoughts should call 911 immediately.

“There are certainly mental health professionals available 24/7,” he says. “And you know, you can see people in the evening and (on) the weekends.”

Petsch says it’s generally easy for her to detect when one of her staff is struggling.

“You can see how they're interacting with clients. You can see their approach to work. You can see it in how they physically carry themselves.”

With such high stakes and pressures, Petsch tries to maintain high morale in her office.

“Everyone is really supportive of one another,” she says. “We really see our clients as valuable members of the community and we want to do what it takes to get them back to the community and back to their families and living their lives.”

Michael Barrett, Ruth Petsch and Greg Nawalanic spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to their entire conversation here.

Jamie Hobbs is an intern on KCUR's Up To Date. Contact her at jamiehobbs@kcur.org or on Twitter, @jamieahobbs.