Improved justice for the poor as St. Louis County public defenders get help from private attorneys

The debate over excessive public defender caseloads is a widespread, national issue. NAPCO President Douglas Beach, Presiding Judge in St. Louis County Missouri, recently took action in his community to help correct the problem.

Overburdened public defenders in St. Louis County are going to get some help from private attorneys courtesy of an order from Presiding Circuit Court Judge Douglas R. Beach. Beach has been meeting for months with criminal justice stakeholders to find ways to reduce defenders’ workloads. He has come up with an equitable solution to help make sure low-income defendants in county courts get the fair representation they deserve.

After examining the circuit’s public defender caseloads, Beach said that nearly 80 percent have too many cases, making them unable to effectively represent their clients. This is not unique to St. Louis County and has been recognized as both a statewide and national problem for years. Beach refused to stand by without taking action, saying that judges share an ethical responsibility to protect the rights of defendants who cannot afford an attorney.

Beach’s order also aims to keep more nonviolent offenders out of jail through a screening process and establishes a lower-priority wait list for public defenders’ clients who are not in jail.

Too often, poor people receive lower-quality legal representation than those who can pay for private defense attorneys. Studies show that more than 80 percent of people charged with felonies are indigent, and the chances of a conviction involving imprisonment are higher for those who can’t afford their own attorney.

Overworked public defenders cannot devote the time needed to adequately represent their clients, resulting in expensive trial delays. Nationwide, about half a million pretrial detainees are estimated to languish in jail — sometimes for years — before their guilt or innocence is determined. Then-U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder estimated in 2013 that delays cost taxpayers $9 billion a year.

St. Louis County jail is almost always at maximum capacity for 1,200 inmates. It was awarded a $2.25 million grant two years ago mostly to reduce the jail population by at least 15 percent. The ability to make bail and afford an attorney often determines who remains behind bars while awaiting trial.

In effect, they’re in jail because they’re poor, violating the innocent-until-proven guilty principle that is fundamental to America’s justice system. Nonviolent defendants don’t belong behind bars to begin with. Besides, they and society are better off if they can continue working and remain with their families.

Beach’s order was in response to district public defender Stephen Reynolds’ request for help with the office’s extensive workload. St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch’s office objected, saying the court should hold separate hearings to consider each defender’s caseload.

Beach said the nearly 8,000 registered attorneys in St. Louis County should be able to reduce the public defenders’ caseload by up to 600 cases annually. Poor defendants have a constitutional right to a fair trial. Beach’s action goes a long way toward correcting this unacceptable imbalance in representation.