Governor Jay Nixon's veto of legislation sponsored by State Senator Jack Goodman, R-Mt. Vernon, that would reform the public defender system has left professionals in the field discouraged and uncertain that help promised by Nixon will materialize.
"We need to assist [public defenders] to make sure that folks that are charged with crime have access to counsel and that we have adequate numbers of those counsel," said Nixon in vetoing Senate Bill 37.
"If there is a silver lining to this," said Clate Baker, district defender for the 39th Judicial Circuit running the public defender office based in Monett, "it's that if the governor is intending to look at the entire judicial system and provide additional resources, we're likely to be at the top."
Senate Bill 37 received broad bi-partisan support in the legislature but was not viewed as a final solution for the public defender problem. The primary problem, Baker explained, has been the volume of cases. The eight local public defenders carried more cases than the national standard set by former federal attorney general John Ashcroft, with no end in sight.
At a meeting Baker attended last week, analysts explained how Senate Bill 37 would have helped. Baker said the bill would have allowed public defenders to assess incoming cases much like a medical triage. More serious cases and defendants who had been jailed would receive priority attention. Less serious cases could be placed on a waiting list.
The strategy would have given public defenders time to give each case the attention it needs. Presently, Baker said public defenders have to handle all the cases handed to them by 39th District judges. Even under Senate Bill 37, no additions would have been made to the staff at the Monett office.
Public defenders out of the Monett office handled 1,800 cases in 2008, less than the previous year. However, the office has 10 murder cases that are presently open.
"We're doing our best," Baker said.
Last year, the Public Defender Commission adopted a rule establishing the maximum number of cases for each defender office. A 2009 court ruling in Boone County declared that the Public Defender Commission lacked the authority to refuse appointments, even for minor offenses. Senate Bill 37 attempted to solidify the approach by allowing public defenders under law to put accused offenders on a "limited availability status."
"We are immensely grateful for all of Senator Goodman's work on Senate Bill 37," said Cat Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri State Public Defenders, "and for the overwhelming legislative support we received from both sides of the aisle. But there is more than one way to fix this problem, and we are certainly open to and excited about the governor's commitment to get Missouri state public defenders the resources it needs to make Senate Bill 37's safety valve unnecessary."
"Obviously I'm very distressed about the veto," Goodman told The Times. "I've spent three years working on this bill. I'm pleased the governor has recognized this is a serious problem. It affects the administration of justice. It's affecting the victims of crime from reaching closure in a timely manner. It's about the entire system of justice.
"I disagree with some of the rationale the governor put into the veto statement. Some of those advocating a veto to the governor were given bad information," Goodman said.
"We need to press on," Goodman continued. "I'll continue to be looking for the best solution to this problem so that victims of crime do not continue to encounter their offenders at the grocery store while awaiting trial. This happens all the time across Missouri. The governor and I have spoken about this directly. He has given his commitment that he will continue to look for solutions to this very real problem."