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Missouri public defenders are overloaded with hundreds of cases while defendants wait in jail

The Sixth Amendment to the Constitution guarantees every American facing trial the right to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one. But across the country, the public defender system is being stretched to the breaking point, and Missouri may be ground zero. John Yang reports with producer Frank Carlson, in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first, when someone is charged with a crime, but can’t afford an attorney, the court is required to provide one. In most cases, that person is a so-called public defender.

    But what if that public defender already has too many clients to serve as competent representation?

    That’s a situation playing out in many states, including Missouri, where public defenders have started refusing cases, throwing a wrench into the machinery of the criminal justice system.

    John Yang has that story, produced by Frank Carlson and with support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and it’s part of our continuing coverage of Broken Justice.

  • John Yang:

    In December, Rayshod Ashton was arrested in Platte County, Missouri, charged with resisting arrest and assaulting a police officer.

    Unable to make bond, he’d already spent four months in jail when his public defender told him that his caseload was so heavy, he wouldn’t have time to take his case to trial for another six months.

  • Rayshod Ashton:

    Like in six months from now, I could totally repair all the damage that’s been done from the four months that I have already been — you know, this is my life right here.

  • John Yang:

    Ashton spoke to us from jail.

  • Rayshod Ashton:

    We shouldn’t even be here. I mean, there’s a room full of 40 guys right now who haven’t been sentenced. They’re all just waiting on the next thing to happen. It’s just a waiting game. I’m just sitting here waiting.

  • John Yang:

    The Sixth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution guarantees every American facing trial the right to a lawyer, even if they cannot afford one.

    The Supreme Court enshrined that right into law with its landmark 1963 ruling in the case Gideon vs. Wainwright. One way society meets that responsibility is with public defenders.

    But across the country, that system is being stretched to the breaking point, underfunded and overworked.

  • Man:

    We have created a counterfeit defense, and it’s only the illusion of fairness.

  • Man:

    The public defender’s office says it’s at a tipping point and the outlook is not good.

  • Woman:

    We want the state to give them public defenders or to give money to appoint lawyers who can represent them in the way that the Constitution demands.

  • Man:

    We are dealing with a crisis.

  • John Yang:

    Missouri may well be ground zero, the state’s public defender system widely seen as nearly broken.

    The state ranks 49th in per capita spending on indigent defense. Last year, its 320 public defenders handled 80,000 cases, on average more than 240 cases each. Listen to these lawyers in the public defender’s office in Jackson County, the state’s biggest district, which includes Kansas City.

  • Man:

    Most days, it’s overwhelming.

  • Woman:

    Over the next six weeks, I have some very, very serious trials.

  • Man:

    They deserve a lot more attention than I give them.

  • Man:

    Mostly all the time.

  • Man:

    I think I have six murder cases right now.

  • Woman:

    Too many for me to be prepared for.

  • Man:

    Pretty much, if you ask any lawyer in this office, they would say the same thing.

  • John Yang:

    Do you feel you’re able to give them all the time they deserve?

    (LAUGHTER)

  • David Wiegert:

    I don’t know if — this is a long answer that you’re asking for here. No is the simple answer.

  • John Yang:

    Michael Barrett is head of Missouri’s Public Defender System.

  • Michael Barrett:

    Defendants routinely sit in jail for weeks just before they meet their attorney. And we tell them that we are very eager to work on your case, but it’s going to be a while, because there’s an awful lot of people in front of you.

  • John Yang:

    In 2016, Barrett convinced the Republican-controlled legislature to spend more money for his office. And when then-Governor Jay Nixon, a Democrat, slashed that increase, Barrett took a bold step.

  • Michael Barrett:

    I wanted to bring attention to this matter because so many people were being incarcerated without competent representation. But before I appointed a private lawyer who didn’t cause this problem, I thought I would start with the one person with a law license in the state who could do something to fix it.

  • Woman:

    A bitter budget battle in Missouri going to a new level last week.

  • Man:

    Missouri Governor Jay Nixon has just been recruited to be a state public defender.

  • Woman:

    And Missouri’s lead public defender has ordered Missouri Governor Jay Nixon to represent a poor defendant in court later this month.

  • John Yang:

    The courts said Barrett didn’t have to power to do that, but he had made his point. Now the courts are considering a $20 million class-action suit the American Civil Liberties Union filed against the state.

    The five plaintiffs, all represented in criminal court by public defenders, say their constitutional rights were violated by long delays.

    Barrett acknowledges that when defenders are handling as many as 200 cases at a time, there’s no way they can fulfill their professional and ethical duties to their clients.

  • Michael Barrett:

    You have to go visit with your client. You have to look at the charges that your client faces. You have to investigate the case. You have to meet with witnesses. You have to talk to the police officer. You have to file motions. You have to receive the evidence that the prosecution has and then discus the evidence with your client.

    To think that you can do each one of those steps in 150 cases is absolutely ridiculous.

  • John Yang:

    As a result, defendants like Rayshod Ashton often end up pleading to crimes they say they didn’t commit just to get out of jail. It’s called pleading to daylight.

  • Rayshod Ashton:

    I was in jail four months already, and by the time they came with a deal, that was probation, I just took it, pretty much knowing I wasn’t guilty of the charges that were being brought about.

  • John Yang:

    After resolving those charges with his probation plea, Ashton remains detained, waiting for his public defender to help him address other charges.

    The issue with overworked public defenders in Missouri has been building for years. Now it’s come to a head. Last summer, the Missouri Supreme Court sent shockwaves through the system by sanctioning a public defender for neglecting clients.

    David Wiegert has been a public defender in Jackson County for six years.

  • David Wiegert:

    This whole thing is a ticking time bomb for all of us. It is probably due to our clients’ inexperience with the system that they don’t know how to file proper bar complaints against us. That allows us to keep going with the system in which we don’t give them proper service.

    But if they were ever made aware of the ways in which they can file formal ethical complaints against us, I think that the gates are open at that point, and I think we drop like flies.

  • John Yang:

    On the day we visited, 16-year defender Laura O’Sullivan was heading to court to tell a judge that, given her workload and ethical responsibilities, she couldn’t take on another client.

    What is the judge’s reaction? How do they react to that?

  • Laura O’Sullivan:

    Most of the time, they’re denying our request to decline the cases. I think they don’t know what to do.

  • John Yang:

    That’s because judges themselves are graded on how quickly they move cases, putting public defenders and sitting judges at odds.

    Some judges and prosecutors say the problem with Missouri public defender offices isn’t too little money or too few people. They say it’s too much mismanagement.

  • Dwight Scroggins:

    You have to do more with less.

  • John Yang:

    Dwight Scroggins served as a public defender before becoming the prosecuting attorney in Buchanan County, north of Kansas City, 28 years ago. He puts the blame for delays on the defenders themselves.

  • Dwight Scroggins:

    The public defender’s thinking is limited to, we have a lot of cases. We need more money. We need more attorneys. And guess what? They have gotten over the years more money and more attorneys and what are they saying? You have to start looking somewhere along the line at efficiencies.

  • John Yang:

    While it’s true that, since 1994, funding for the state public defenders office has continued to grow, so has the number of cases the office handles, which leads to the question, how many cases are too many?

  • Stephen Hanlon:

    Missouri is the epicenter of this whole movement to end this abandonment of the rule of law.

  • John Yang:

    Stephen Hanlon is a longtime pro bono attorney who serves as counsel to the National Association for Public Defense. Its members includes 16,000 public defenders. By auditing the work of both public and private defense attorneys in Missouri and three other states, he’s developed a standard for how many hours should be spent on a case.

    The results are striking.

  • Stephen Hanlon:

    They’re handling three to five times as many cases as they can handle competently. If an obstetrician has three to five times as many cases as he or she can handle competently, terrible things happen.

    If a public defender, with people’s liberty at stake, has three to five times as many cases as he or she can handle competently, terrible things will happen.

  • John Yang:

    He hopes his data will eventually lead to reforms in what he sees as the systematic, unconstitutional and racist underfunding of indigent defense across the nation.

  • Stephen Hanlon:

    You cannot do mass incarceration unless the whole justice system rolls over and plays dead.

  • John Yang:

    In the meantime, defendants like Rayshod Ashton wait for their day in court.

  • Rayshod Ashton:

    We’re your sons and we are your cousins. And there’s a whole bunch of pods over there that are your daughters and moms. I don’t understand how this is continuing to be the case, like, over and over again.

  • John Yang:

    An all-too-common refrain for those who must rely on public defenders to represent them in court.

    For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m John Yang in Kansas City.

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