JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A coalition of legal defense groups, led by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the ACLU of Missouri filed a lawsuit early Wednesday against the state of Missouri for improperly funding the state’s public defender system.
Last year, the dire situation in the Missouri State Public Defender’ Office rose to prominence when Director Michael Barrett assigned a case to then-Gov. Jay Nixon to highlight how financially strained the body was. Months later, the ACLU came to the conclusion.
“For three decades, the state of Missouri has known about the failings of its public defense system,” Anthony Rothert, the legal director of the ACLU of Missouri, said in a statement. “This chronic underfunding has resulted in an equally chronic constitutional crisis in Missouri that has cost the livelihood of thousands of Missourians who are denied justice because their attorneys couldn’t devote the necessary time or resources to their cases.”
The ACLU noted the public defender’s 370 attorneys across the state had to juggle over 80,000 cases a year. This lack of lawyers, the ACLU argues, violates the constitutional right to a fair and speedy trial by jury.
“Only because they can’t afford the cost of a private attorney, Missourians are stripped of their chance for a fair shake in court,” Jason Williamson, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project, said in a statement. “This isn’t a matter of guilt or innocence. When the state’s public defense system is shortchanged, the entire criminal justice system falters.”