Last week the Springfield Public Defender's Office started turning down requests for representation due to the heavy number of caseloads and overworked attorneys slogging through the justice system.
Here in the 39th Circuit, the caseloads may be high, but the Public Defender's Office has not turned anyone away who is seeking representation.
"We were sending our conflict cases to Springfield, and we no longer are able to do that," said Clate Baker, a 13-year veteran of the 39th Circuit's Public Defender's Office. "Conflict cases are those where there may possibly be a co-defendant and we can't represent both. We do have a limited amount of funds for contracting out a certain number of cases."
But those funds are spread between Public Defender's Offices throughout the state.
"Since the Springfield office has stopped taking new cases, it is affecting those funds statewide," Baker said. "Almost all state offices are on track to begin turning down cases. Every office in the state is overloaded."
Baker said caseload numbers in the 39th Circuit fluctuate on a month-to-month basis. The highest number of cases accepted in the 39th Circuit in one month last year was 207; the lowest 120.
Cases range from traffic misdemeanors, assault, burglary, stealing, receipt of stolen property, violations of orders of protection, child welfare endangerment, no driver's license, driving while intoxicated, passing bad checks and manufacture of drugs and possession of drugs and/or paraphernalia.
Baker said his office currently has 105 open felony cases, including seven murder trials for which they are preparing.
To obtain the services of a public defender, one must first prove they they have no means for hiring private counsel.
"We have an application that the person will fill out," Baker explained. "Once we determine that an individual is qualified for the service, we will agree to represent that person."
Often clients are referred to the Public Defender's Office through the court, but Baker said people don't have to wait for a court appearance to make the request.
"When they read you the right to an attorney, that means the right to an attorney right now," Baker said. "Anytime a person is talking to the police concerning the legal consequences of anything, they should seek an attorney.
"A person has the absolute right not to answer questions," Baker said. "They have the absolute right to an attorney immediately. If the police don't have evidence to hold a person, they have to let that person go."
The attorneys who work for the Public Defender's Office have a wealth of experience from which to draw to serve their clients.
"We get pretty good at our jobs," Baker said. " We don't do civil work, and we don't do city or federal work. We're professionals in the field of criminal defense."