March 9, 2017

Missouri sued over failing public defender system

Submitted by the ACLU

ST. LOUIS — The American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Missouri, the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe filed a class-action lawsuit against the state of Missouri over its unconstitutional system of public defense.

The state’s public defenders don’t have the time or resources to provide adequate legal representation and are unable to talk to their clients about possible witnesses, exculpatory evidence, plea negotiations, or trial strategy. The suit asks that the court force the state to improve the public defender system and end its violations of the Sixth Amendment.

"I sat in jail for 42 days before I saw my public defender, who told me that I had a winnable case, but he wouldn’t have time to go to trial for another four to six months," said Shondel Church, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit, who was charged with felony theft but pled guilty to a misdemeanor in Kansas City in July 2016. "In jail, you’re starving on what they give you and you’re dying to get out. I was hoping things would move faster – but those 129 days cost me a whole lot: I lost all that time working, and I finally had to give up and plead guilty, just to get out and help my family."

Each year, the Missouri State Public Defender office has more than 80,000 cases. It employs approximately 370 attorneys. In 97 percent of their cases, Missouri public defenders fail to reach the minimum number of work hours required for constitutional representation, according to analysis by the American Bar Association and lawyers across the state.

"For three decades, the state of Missouri has known about the failings of its public defense system," said Anthony Rothert, Legal Director at the ACLU of Missouri. "This chronic underfunding has resulted in an equally chronic constitutional crisis in Missouri that has cost the livelihood of thousands of Missourians who are denied justice because their attorneys couldn’t devote the necessary time or resources to their cases."

Plaintiffs in this lawsuit have had to go before a judge for bail hearings without their public defender present. As a result, they faced bail amounts too high for them to afford and spent weeks or months in jail unnecessarily. While in jail, they have waited for weeks to see their public defenders for short conversations that are too brief to cover the relevant facts of the case.

"Enough is enough with appointing commissions and committees to ‘study’ the issues. It has long been clear the state of Missouri is in a constitutional crisis," said Mae Quinn, Director of the Roderick and Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis. "The time is now for our state to take seriously its duty to meet the standards of representation and to stop denying Missourians justice."

Said Jason Williamson, Senior Staff Attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, "Only because they can’t afford the cost of a private attorney, Missourians are stripped of their chance for a fair shake in court. This isn’t a matter of guilt or innocence. When the state’s public defense system is shortchanged, the entire criminal justice system falters."