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TEAM EFFORT: District Defender Rod Hackathorn, front, manages the caseload of 20 staff attorneys, including assistant public defenders Ken Eckhauser and Emily Rose Pelz. Attorneys handle roughly 100 cases apiece.
SBJ photo by Jessica Rosa
TEAM EFFORT: District Defender Rod Hackathorn, front, manages the caseload of 20 staff attorneys, including assistant public defenders Ken Eckhauser and Emily Rose Pelz. Attorneys handle roughly 100 cases apiece.

Justice for All: County aims to shorten inmates’ wait times for public defenders

Posted online

Greene County is doubling down to address a bottleneck in the local criminal justice system after a pilot program last fall helped shorten the list of people in jail waiting for legal defense.

The program funneled $25,000 of county funds to contract private attorneys to take on cases of indigent defendants, said Presiding Commissioner Bob Dixon. The Missouri State Public Defender’s office matched the funds and pledged an additional $50,000.

“When the public is engaged in this discussion about fighting crime, naturally most people want bad guys put away; I do, too. But everybody is entitled to a fair trial,” Dixon said, “they’re entitled to defense. That’s where the weakest link in this chain of the judicial system in Greene County is.”

The county funds alone supplied legal defense for 30 people in the Greene County jail facing low-level felonies, according to county documents. Half were no longer in the jail within a month of the program starting.

County budget officer Jeff Scott projected the pilot program saved the county over $30,000 per month in housing the inmates. It costs $62-$66 daily to house a person in the jail, according to estimates from the county and sheriff’s office.

The state’s public defender system has long struggled to keep up with demand. That’s left taxpayers footing the bill to keep defendants locked up – and has delayed justice for those awaiting representation and their alleged victims.

District Defender Rod Hackathorn said, on average, indigent defendants wait 90 days to be assigned a public defender. His office, which covers Greene, Christian and Taney counties, employs 20 attorneys and two supervisors. Full-time attorneys often manage 100-plus cases.

“This area has just been growing so rapidly and the justice system, we’re struggling to keep up,” he said. “We’re still the bottleneck. You can throw all the money you want at more judges and more prosecutors, but if there is not enough public defenders to handle the caseload, you still have a backlog and you still have jail population that exceeds the capacity.”

Overcrowded jail
In early February, there were roughly 1,016 inmates at the Greene County jail, according to Greene County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Marc Staeger. But a few hundred of those inmates are housed in neighboring counties, he said, as the capacity of the jail is 709.

Scott said the county spent $2.2 million in 2019 to house inmates in neighboring counties, but the figure does not include transportation or staff time costs. The 2020 budget for the jail is nearly $22 million.

Voters approved a half-cent general revenue sales tax in November 2017 to generate funds for a new jail – estimated at $150 million and slated for completion in 2022.

Dixon noted that while the increased jail space is necessary, it’s not the only piece of the puzzle.

“If we don’t do it, our jail which will hold 1,154 prisoners when it’s opened in two years, we’ll be full on day one,” he said of the importance of expanding resources for the public defender’s office.

Hackathorn said almost everyone in custody in Greene County would qualify for a public defender, adding those with the financial means are usually able to quickly hire an attorney and post bond.

“Outside of the folks that are homeless, the other people that we represent, what they do have is meager,” he said. “If they were working at all, they are living paycheck to paycheck and if they are in jail just a few weeks, they potentially lose everything they have already built up. They lose their home, they lose their car and their family ends up on the street.

“We’re letting them down big time.”

Sixth Amendment
In a fiscal 2021 budget request, Missouri State Public Defender’s office Director Mary Fox said the department would need another 327 attorneys to meet the current caseload. That would double the current number of attorneys statewide.

“Missouri’s public defenders have too many cases and not enough lawyers or support staff to fulfill the state’s constitutional obligations,” she wrote in the letter to Gov. Mike Parson.

In a recent appearance before the House Budget Committee, Fox said she needed roughly $3.3 million in additional funding to contract private attorneys to meet the demand. In the budget for next fiscal year, Parson recommended a $1.4 million increase for the public defender system. The new total budget of $53 million is short of the $61 million the office said it needs.

Dixon said proper representation was a big motivator behind the county’s program, adding that wait times of 90 days to see an attorney doesn’t “meet the plain language definition of the United States Constitution about a speedy trial.”

Hackathorn said the public defender’s office instituted a wait list two years ago to ensure clients were receiving proper representation. But without additional attorneys, the wait list continues to grow.

“We were really just providing warm bodies in court because there was no way with a caseload of 200 that you can really be looking into all the issues, meeting with your clients, meeting witnesses, doing investigation,” he said.

He now adheres to the American Bar Association standard of around 100 cases. But high turnover and a growing wait list make it hard to keep up. Last year, Hackathorn said he had a roughly 15% turnover rate among attorneys. He said pay for public defenders ranges $48,400-$74,000 annually.

Scott Pierson of Twibell Pierson Criminal Law worked in the public defender’s office early in his career. He said it was an invaluable experience, and now he’s a vocal advocate for properly funding the office.

“The public defender system in the state of Missouri is woefully underfunded,” he said. “It’s never going to be popular in the state of Missouri, which has some budget issues, to fund the public defender system. Whether the community likes it or not, they are a necessary component in the justice system.”

Pierson applauds the county commission’s pilot program and said further reform is necessary to drive down rates of recidivism.

“The No. 1 indicator if somebody is going to resort back to a life of crime or commit crimes is socioeconomic status. We’re not giving them opportunity to be successful,” he said.

Finding solutions
As a former Missouri legislator, Dixon said he knows funding the public defender’s office isn’t popular. But he paints an economic case and a constitutional case.

He said the county is reimbursed $22.58 a day for people in the jail who are later convicted. There is no reimbursement from the state for inmates whose charges are dropped or who are found not guilty. That’s an incentive for shortening wait times of inmates waiting for defense, he said.

“If the state would continue to work with us, we can provide results,” he said of the pilot program. “It’s a whole lot cheaper to provide a judge and provide us some funds for public defense to meet our obligations under the Sixth Amendment than racking up a bill of millions of dollars for reimbursing the jail cost when somebody is convicted.”

Hackathorn said the best solution would be to add more full-time attorneys to the local public defender’s office, but he’s not confident that will happen. In the meantime, he said the program to contract private attorneys is a solution.

“When you represent somebody ... and you were their only voice in court, maybe the only person that’s fought for them in a very long time and you get them out and they turn their life around, that can really get you going and keep you going in this job,” he said. “I believe in what we do.”

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