A rural Missouri county is moving to a privatized system for public defenders, a system that some advocates would like to see become more common.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reports that starting March 1, people charged with crimes in Texas County who cannot afford an attorney will get private lawyers. The state will foot the bill because the Missouri State Public Defender agency has decided to privatize the southern Missouri county, which has about 26,000 residents.
Missouri's public defender office has been underfunded for years, leading to heavy caseloads. The American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri filed a lawsuit alleging the system fails to provide even "minimally adequate representation to indigent defendants."
Privatizing public defender duties has been previously considered by lawmakers, but it appears to be gaining some traction in the Missouri House.
Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender office, told the House budget committee last week that private attorneys charge between $200 and $500 an hour to handle cases, with the less-common serious crimes more expensive than cases such as low-level felonies and misdemeanors. By contrast, it cost the state $325 per case to represent most indigent defendants last year, according to the office's annual report.
In areas of the state with larger populations, "a public defender's office is necessary," said Rep. Kathie Conway, a St. Charles Republican who once worked in the St. Louis public defender's office and also chairs the subcommittee on the budgets for the state's Public Safety and Corrections Departments.
"In some of these outlying (counties), we need to run the numbers," Conway said. "I think we might find we're going to save a lot of money on (privatization)."
About 15 percent of the state public defender system's budget already goes to contracts with private attorneys. But fewer than half of Missouri's counties have lawyers available to accept contracts.
Rep. Robert Ross, a Yukon Republican who represents Texas County, believes lawyers will step up.
"In many cases, you already have established attorneys who are not only qualified but then would love that opportunity for business," he said. "They're in a much better position to perform this function."
Last year, public defenders opened about 530 cases in Texas County, only one of which was handled by a private attorney, according to the annual report. The public defender's office that represents Texas County also represents five other counties. It was assigned about 3,700 cases last year.
The proposal introduced in the House this year would hand over about 90 percent of the state's public defender cases to private lawyers.
"My main concern is fulfilling our constitutional obligation of providing defense to the indigent," said Ross, who is sponsoring the legislation. "Currently, with the way that this is operating, I don't think anybody would make the contention we are actually making good on that requirement."