COLUMBIA, Mo. — A Missouri judge said the wait time for some poor defendants to get legal help is unconstitutional but is giving state lawmakers time to beef up the agency's budget in hopes that will help.
Circuit Judge Will Hickle in an order last week wrote that a group of poor defendants likely will succeed in their class-action lawsuit against the state.
He wrote that Missouri is violating the U.S. and Missouri constitutions by "charging an indigent defendant with a crime in which the State seeks the defendant’s incarceration, and then delaying for weeks, months, and even more than a year before furnishing the defendant with an attorney.”
The defendants’ attorneys said some waited in jail for more than a year before getting public defenders.
“Missouri’s use of waiting lists lets the state prosecute folks who cannot afford an attorney without the appointment of counsel to represent them,” said Tony Rothert, legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, in a statement. “The practice is scandalous, and we are thrilled the judge recognized the magnitude of harm waiting lists inflict on individuals’ constitutional rights."
The ACLU of Missouri is among several advocacy groups representing the defendants in the class-action lawsuit.
Missouri public defenders have been overwhelmed for years, prompting a waiting list for state-paid legal help beginning in 2017.
According to the court order, there were 2,500 people on waiting lists in November 2020. Of those, 233 had been waiting for representation for more than a year.
Hickle wrote that waiting longer than two weeks to appoint a public defender hinders defendants' ability to stand up for themselves in court. For example, he wrote that delays limit them from collecting evidence in their defense.
Public defender Director Mary Fox said she’s hopeful state lawmakers will increase the office’s budget this year to reduce wait times. She requested funding for another 12 attorneys this year.
Hickled delayed a final ruling to give lawmakers time to act. They have until May to pass a budget for the fiscal year beginning in July.