JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The director of Missouri’s public defender system didn’t mince words when he penned a letter to Gov. Jay Nixon asking for more funds for the beleaguered system and accused Nixon of making it harder for poor people to get justice in court.
“Given the unwillingness to provide an adequate defense for poor people, it is not surprising to me that taxpayers have had to, in turn, carry the enormous financial burden of an artificially inflated prison population that continues to rise despite the opposing national trend,” wrote Michael Barrett, director of the state’s public defender system, in a letter dated Aug 7.
Barrett makes note of Nixon’s history of vetoing or withholding funds for public defenders. Barrett accused Nixon — a former state attorney general — of being informed of, but “unconcerned” with the under-funded system. His letter requests $10 million from Nixon to supplement the current budget.
Barrett’s letter also directly references a scathing Department of Justice report from less than two weeks ago claiming that the St. Louis County Family Court treats black youths more harshly than whites, is bogged down by conflicts of interest and routinely violates the constitutional rights of juveniles.
Prominent in the DOJ report is that Missouri public defenders are overwhelmed with massive caseloads and few resources, all while seeing their budget slashed or stagnant for years. Barrett goes on to critique Nixon’s support of a new state park and a proposed St. Louis NFL stadium while failing to provide funds for defenders.
“These luxuries, while appealing to some, cannot compare to the state’s obligation to ensure that every Missourian, regardless of means, enjoys equal protection under the law,” Barrett writes.
Finally, the public defender’s director hints at a lawsuit against the state if they continue to flounder financially. Barrett writes that a court would find what other’s have already said, that “the state is not meeting its obligation to its citizens under the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.” Though Barrett says he’d prefer to see te matter resolved through “traditional” avenues.
Nixon’s office has publicly confirmed that they received the letter but has not yet commented.
Read the full letter here.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.