- Associated Press - Monday, February 27, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - The Missouri public defender system made its case to a House Budget Committee on Monday about why it needs more money to provide lawyers to people too poor to hire private attorneys.

The director of the system, Michael Barrett, said Gov. Eric Greitens’ proposal to restore $2.5 million of a $3.5 million cut to this year’s budget wouldn’t be enough to fund a system grappling with high turnover and low attorney pay.

Former Gov. Jay Nixon attempted to give more money to the system, recommending a $4.5 million increase for public defenders. He later cut $3.5 million amid declining revenues, which sparked a protest in which Barrett appointed Nixon, a former attorney general, to represent an indigent client in a case when he was still governor. The appointment was later struck down by a court.

Missouri’s public defenders currently have the second-lowest pay in the nation. In fiscal year 2016, the system had a turnover rate of nearly 15 percent, according to a budget request summary.

Barrett said at the committee hearing that the turnover rate forced the system to hire younger, less experienced attorneys. It also created a large backlog of cases as the defender’s office looked to fill positions.

The director offered several solutions to the committee to alleviate some of the burden on defenders. One idea was to contract out on so-called “conflict cases” in which two defendants commit a crime together and must be represented by different attorneys. These crimes can require public defenders to drive outside of their jurisdiction to represent a client, costing time and money.

Barrett said without more money, the public defender’s system will have to make cuts such as shutting down the Civil Defense Unit or closing offices.

“We can do one of two things: give us the money and we’ll do our jobs … or we’re going to have to start making cuts,” he said.

But those reductions can only go so far. The public defender’s system is legally required to provide an attorney for people who can’t afford one.

“(The public defender system) is not like the Department of Transportation where you can just say ‘We’ll just resurface that road next year,’” Barrett said. “These are real human beings with rights who are sitting in local jails.”

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