Missouri sued over 'failing' public defender system

If you're poor in Missouri, chances are you may be denied justice in the court system.

If you're poor in Missouri, chances are you may be denied justice in the court system.

That's the claim of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union against the state. It centers around the shortfalls of the Missouri's public defenders office.

Michael Barrett is the director of the state's public defender program, and a defendant listed in the lawsuit. But he spoke candidly with News Channel 5 about why he hopes this lawsuit will bring much-needed change to his department.

"We knew this was coming for years. In fact, I've been doing everything short of setting myself on fire to bring attention to this," said Barrett.

According to the lawsuit - the state's public defender's program is failing the citizens of Missouri. The biggest complaint listed in the lawsuit? Public defenders are overworked and their clients' 6th Amendment rights are being violated.

"No lawyer can handle 150-to-200 cases at one time. But that's essentially what we have to do. As a result, people are going to prison that don't need to go to prison. They are compelled to plead guilty so they can get out of jail and go back to their families and go back to their jobs if they have them," said Barrett.

According to the ACLU, the Missouri State Public Defender Office has more than 80,000 cases and employs approximately 370 attorneys.

The lawsuit also states in 97% of cases handled by public defenders, the attorneys did not devote the minimum recommended number of hours to the case.

That means the wheels of justice move much slower for those who can't afford to pay for a private attorney

"It disrupts lives. They need lawyers to quickly get tot heir case, get a bond reduction, get them back to their family. They're innocent until the case goes through the whole criminal justice process," said Barrett.

Barrett says his office needs at least $20 million, and 300 additional attorneys to adequately do its job. That's also what the lawsuit is asking for.

"When we're underfunded we create costs in other areas. We create costs in the county, in terms of local jails. We create costs in the state, in terms of state prison or the court system because we don't move the cases through as fast as we should," said Barrett.

© 2017 KSDK-TV


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