Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Justice for All: How Other Places Are Running Their Public Defender Systems (Without Closing Doors)

In this segment of our series “Justice for All: The Missouri Public Defender System in Crisis,” we’re taking a tour of the United States to see how other places are running their public defender systems—and what Missouri might learn from them. KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports.

Our around-the-nation tour starts at the top, in a tall, gray building about a block off of Pennsylvania Avenue in the nation’s capital. Experts in criminal defense say the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, or PDS, as it’s known, is the best in the nation. And like most of Washington D.C., it’s federally-funded.

According its website, the service has 125 attorneys—keep in mind, Missouri has three times that number of public defenders, but about ten times the population of Washington, D.C.

And whereas here in Missouri, public defenders take on all types of cases—from minor misdemeanors to capital murder cases—the Washington, D.C. system does things differently. The attorneys there are appointed to more serious, complex cases that require a lot of research and time. The D.C. courts assign the majority of misdemeanor and traffic cases to a panel of private attorneys.

The PDS is also known for its extensive training workshops, and it has an office devoted to sorting through applications, and for communicating between attorneys, their clients, and their clients’ families.

Our next stop is the Badger State, which is also seen as having an exemplary public defender system.

"I believe we’re very fortunate in Wisconsin, because we’re considered an equal member of the justice system," says Kelli Thompson, the second in command at the Wisconsin Office of the State Public Defender. She says her office works closely with prosecutors and judges in the state.

"And that’s been very important. Because as a member of that table—that justice table—we are able to have those proactive conversations and talk about meeting the needs of our different communities," she says.

Thompson says the starting salary for a public defender in Wisconsin is about $50,000 annually. In Missouri, it’s in the mid-30s. This year, Thompson says Wisconsin’s office of the State Public Defender has requested 80 million dollars from the state legislature.

It may or may not see every penny of that, but still, that’s over twice the state appropriations given to Missouri’s public defender system last fiscal year--and Missouri is a state with more people.

One thing that has caused some waves in Wisconsin is how public defenders work with private attorneys. Almost a third of Wisconsin’s indigent criminal cases are handled by private lawyers. They sign up through local offices, and cases are assigned on a rotational basis.

"They are compensated for their work. It’s 40 dollars an hour for all types of cases. And that has been an issue in Wisconsin, because that is a rate that has been static for over 15 years," she says.

Some private attorneys in Wisconsin have said they are essentially working pro-bono, because they’re spending more on overhead than they are earning on those cases.

Thompson says caseloads are still very high—they’re above the American Bar Association recommendations.

And in Missouri’s neighbor to the East, Illinois, each of the 102 counties has a public defender office. Jeff Howard is president of the Illinois Public Defender System’s Board of Directors.

“In approximately 40 of the 102 counties, there are full time chief public defenders,” Howard said.

And the majority of counties in Illinois are staffed only by part-time public defenders, who often work in the private sector on the side. In Illinois, private attorneys are generally only brought in by contract if there’s a conflict for public defenders on a case.

Rodney Uphoff is the Elwood Thomas Endowed Professor at the University of Missouri Law School in Columbia. He says he has concerns about both the cost and the results of contracting work out to private attorneys. Take Oklahoma, for example, where Uphoff sat on the governor-appointed board that oversaw the system.

"We had two public defender offices in the state, one in Tulsa and one in Oklahoma County. The rest of the state was provided by contracts to private lawyers who worked in the counties. And the quality that was provided under that system was, quite frankly, terrible," he said.

He says many states are facing a crisis of their indigent defender systems—not just Missouri. But whereas many state legislatures have responded to the call to provide adequate funding, he says that’s clearly not the case in Missouri.

“The reason why I think people ought to be concerned about this as a problem: when you try to run your criminal justice system on the cheap, it affects the quality of the overall system,” he said.

It affects prosecutors, he says, because they don’t have enough money to convict the guilty. It affects crime labs, because they’re overburdened.

“But it also leads to an increased number of innocent people being wrongfully convicted. That’s one of the real outcomes when we don’t adequately fund our criminal justice system. And it’s particularly noticeable when we don’t fund the defense of people,” he said.

According to a comparative report last year led by Robert Spangenberg, a professor at George Mason University, Missouri ranked 49th among the 50 states when it came to total funding for its public defender system, beating out only Mississippi, for which there was no data.

I’m Jennifer Moore.

ANCHOR TAG: Join us Friday morning at the same time--7:30 a.m.--when we look toward the future of Missouri's Public Defender system.