Story By: Alisa Nelson
(Jefferson City) — Missouri’s prosecutors and public defenders are experiencing similar problems – heaping caseloads and not enough attorneys.
During a state House Budget Committee hearing, Missouri Public Defender System Director Mary Fox says her office wants an extra $3.3 million in state funding to make a nice dent in the waiting list of poor Missourians requesting legal services.
“It has reached about 6,000 cases throughout the state of Missouri, which is quite a large number,” says Fox. “Most of those people are not confined. Some of them are confined. It is a problem not only for the people who qualify for services but also for the courts. While I don’t agree with it, I think the problem lies in the fact that the court wants to move the case through the system and doesn’t want someone lingering without counsel. And so, as sort of an unintended consequence of that, now that we are attempting to limit the cases because of the Supreme Court rules that have come down, we now have these wait lists where we can’t represent everyone.”
Fox says her office closes more than 61,000 cases annually among nearly 400 attorneys. In fiscal year 2019, about 12,000 were felony drug cases.
Last year, the system contracted out about 13,000 cases. Fox wants the waiting list to also be handled by some private practice attorneys.
“There is a benefit to that, in that we could get them out to attorneys throughout the state,” she says. “There are some problems also. One of those is it costs more.”
The figure is a far cry from the 321 attorneys Fox says the system would need to follow the Constitution. Instead, the $3.3 million her office is requesting to help with the wait list, it would equate to hiring 39 new full-time attorneys.
She says caseloads could be reduced by limiting which cases are prosecuted.
“I’m not saying don’t prosecute cases because a crime has occurred. I’m saying do a thorough investigation before you make the decision to issue a case,” Fox says. “Just by taking that simple step, the case numbers will drop both for the prosecutors and for the defense counsel.”
She also wants the Legislature and courts to put an emphasis on diversion programs, substance treatment courts and getting mentally ill people services they need.
“If folks are diverted away from the criminal justice system, they would not need our services. I can tell you that I’ve had personal experience with the Diversion court in the city of St. Louis and it’s been a good project,” she says. “Every time we get angry, we can’t charge somebody with a crime. We have got to look a little more closely at who are we bringing into the criminal justice system and why are we bringing them there.”
As for Missouri prosecutors, a new survey of 41% of the offices shows they averaged more than 1,200 felony cases and 1,800 misdemeanor cases reviewed in 2018. During a press conference held by the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, Christian County Prosecutor Amy Fite says they are doing plenty of other things.
“Those numbers alone are significantly higher than any caseload that a public defender is currently carrying based on what they’re trying to do with regards to wait lists and having open cases. Just this number alone far exceeds their numbers, just to give some perspective with regards to the workload that the prosecutors are carrying,” Fite says. “Every day there’s multiple cases being reviewed and charged. And this is just a small fraction of the work that prosecutors do. They would be appearing in court. They’re going to be providing guidance to law enforcement officers. They’re reviewing search warrants. They’re going to be preparing for trial. They’re going to be meeting with witnesses and victims. Everybody has a plate that is overflowing with work to be done. We have to make a determination with regards to how we can best serve those. We have to be able to serve them both effectively and efficiently. We have to be able to afford victims across this state all the rights they are guaranteed by statute as well as by the Missouri Constitution.”
Most of the prosecutors’ offices are also handling civil matters and about 13% of respondents are dealing with juvenile cases. They also provide community programs, including child advocacy centers and community engagement programs.
Most of the offices are funded through local tax dollars. MAPA Executive Director Darrell Moore says staff turnover and low pay are major issues for the prosecuting attorney offices. The survey, conducted by the National Prosecutors’ Consortium, shows the starting salaries of recently graduated law students hired as Missouri prosecutors ranged from a minimum of $26,000 to a maximum of $60,000. The average is about $51,000.
On average, Missouri prosecutors’ offices have 7 full-time and less than one part-time attorneys. They also have an average of 12 full-time and less than one part-time non-attorneys.
About 85% of survey respondents reported engaging in problem solving courts or other programs that offered alternatives to jail. Drug/alcohol treatment (76%) and community service (73%) were the most common ones. Anger management or domestic violence diversion was offered in 64% of counties. Training/education programs (51%) and mental health services (44%) were also offered.
Prosecutors have used creative ways to try and keep some individuals out of the criminal justice system. The St. Charles County Prosecutor’s Office is using a program called TREND – Taking Responsibility and Empowering New Direction -for first-time non-violent offenders between 17 and 24 years old.
“The cycle that we all see with those types of cases is that once a person is caught up in the system due to a variety of circumstances, whether that might be addiction, whether that’s socioeconomic issues, or what have you, they find themselves unable to get out of the system,” says MAPA President Tim Lohmar.
Lohmar, who serves as the St. Charles County Prosecutor Attorney in eastern Missouri, says TREND is a classroom setting in court that aims to give students a fresh start. They must attend every other week for six months. Self-improvement topics include job searching skills, financial responsibility and job interviewing skills. If they complete the program, they walk out of court with a dismissal in their hand.
Eric Zahnd, the Platte County Prosecutor in western Missouri, says the Handle With Care program in his county uses a web-based app to let law enforcement report when they’ve responded to a home where children are present. Officers can log into the system, enter their badge number, the address of the incident and that’s that.
The next day, school administrators can log onto the program, find the address where the incident happened and find out if the children are enrolled in their district. The information is passed along to school counselors and teachers to be on the lookout if the students act out or appear upset.
School officials can then intervene if needed and handle the kids with extra care. Administrators do not receive additional details about what happened at the home – just to let them know that something potentially stressful occurred.
“We believe it will go a long way to decreasing childhood trauma, which often leads later to children becoming associated with the juvenile system and sometimes with the adult criminal system. If we can deal with those adverse childhood experiences early, help children work through that problem, we hope we’re helping generations of children avoid being otherwise involved with the criminal justice system,” says Zahnd.
In southwest Missouri’s Greene County, Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson, says the Family Justice Center recognizes the criminal justice system is not sufficient by itself to deal with domestic violence. The public-private partnership is a co-located site working to help victims.
For example, a victim could find services from the legal services agency to help with applying for a protection order, child custody issues, the dissolving of a marriage, emergency housing and rape crisis help.
“The benefits of this are that we provide more efficient, coordinated services to victims. It can be a very daunting task to be a victim of domestic assault and have to deal with the aftermath of this,” says Patterson. “It also increases the accountability that we can achieve on offenders because victims cooperate more with law enforcement and prosecution in those cases.”
Patterson says the model has been shown in other communities across the country to reduce domestic violence homicide rates as well as recidivism rates among domestic batterers.