Thursday, February 25, 2021

Judge finds Missouri's waiting list for public defender unconstitutional

 Though he found Missouri’s practice of putting poor criminal defendants on a waiting list to be appointed a public defender is unconstitutional, a state judge issued a stay to give legislators more time to remedy the situation, reported the Courthouse News Service.

In a ruling issued last Thursday, Phelps County Judge William Hickle cited continued reductions in the number of defendants currently on the list and the prospect of more funding being provided to the public defender’s office that would eliminate the list entirely as reasons for the stay.

The case, which Hickle heard during a two-day bench trial in November, is stayed until June 30, 2021. A review is docketed for July 1, with the state required to provide monthly updates regarding the number of defendants on the list and the status of legislative funding.

“Respondents are optimistic that there will be sufficient funding to wholly eliminate the [Missouri State Public Defender] waiting list sometime this calendar year,” Hickle wrote. “Respondents urge that separation-of-powers and comity interests are furthered by allowing the General Assembly time to provide funding to eliminate the MSPD waiting lists, which in turn will hopefully render moot Petitioners’ requests for relief.”

The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, objected to the stay. Attorneys for both sides did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

During the trial, Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project based in New York, told the court that five of the named petitioners spent 93, 107, 116, 1147 and 160 days, respectively, on the waiting list before being assigned representation.

He cited numbers from 2019, when there were 4,690 defendants on the list. Of those, 2,744 had been waiting for at least three months; 2,233 for at least four months; 1,916 for at least five months; 1,546 for at least six months; and 600 for one year.

When the trial occurred, there were roughly 2,000 people on the waiting list. Of those, 1,113 had been waiting for at least three months; 922 for at least four months; 734 for at least five months; 665 for at least six months; and 233 for at least one year.

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