- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Private attorneys in the St. Louis area have committed to take over some cases from the state’s overburdened public defender system on a volunteer basis.

A new nonprofit called the Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel is behind the plan, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (https://bit.ly/2nvXUf4 ) reported. It calls for young, private sector attorneys to handle some jury cases for indigent defendants in St. Louis and St. Louis County circuit courts.

More than a dozen St. Louis area firms have pledged to provide volunteers, with training to start in April. Along with reducing public defender caseloads, the program will help young attorneys gain trial experience.

Organizers said the plan is unrelated to a lawsuit filed earlier this month by the American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri. The organization wants to force the state to increase funding and adequately provide counsel to indigent defendants.

“The coalition is not in the business of politics and arguing for funding,” coalition founder Richard Scherrer said. “If there’s a way to help, the notion is the Missouri Bar should step up and help.”

Gov. Eric Greitens has proposed additional funding for public defenders in next year’s budget, but he hasn’t released the $3 million held by former Gov. Jay Nixon this year.

To make ensure lawmakers carry the responsibility of providing counsel to poverty-stricken people in Missouri, the coalition plans to provide volunteers for only two years.

“We don’t want anyone to take this for granted,” Scherrer said. “For those charged with the responsibility of funding the public defenders, we want to make sure they continue to acknowledge that, and don’t think, ‘Oh, the Missouri Bar has stepped in, maybe the state of Missouri could do less.’”

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Information from: St. Louis Post-Dispatch, https://www.stltoday.com

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