However, today the Springfield Public Defenders office announced it will not take any new cases due to case overload until at least August 1st, but even that date is questionable.
Cat Kelly, deputy director of the Missouri Public Defender's office says, "Absent a drastic reduction in the numbers of defendants needing defender services, this pattern will continue each month thereafter --with the office able to accept new cases only for the first two to three weeks of each month before reaching its maximum and closing its doors to those clients whose cases arrive at the public defender’s office thereafter."
The twenty-lawyer office serves Greene, Christian, and Taney counties. The closing rule applies if an office exceeds maximum caseload standards for three consecutive months.
According to Kelly, "For well over a year, the Greene County courts have been taking informal steps to try to divert cases from the Public Defender in the hopes of avoiding this step. Their efforts slowed the numbers of cases coming in the door of the Springfield Defender Office but not enough. As of the end of June, the office was still being assigned cases requiring close to 34% more attorney hours to handle than the office has available to provide."
Christian County Prosecutor Ron Cleek
Christian County Prosecutor Ron Cleek, who is running for re-elections says, "There are three public defender's that deal with about 50% of the case load in my county. I have the same number of attorney's that deal with 100% of the case load, victims and paperwork too. The public defender's office just got $2 million dollars to help them with their caseloads, but they still say they're overworked and underpaid."
Taney County Prosecutor Jeff Merrell says he believes that the Public Defenders office handles less than half of the case that are filed in his county. "It's disappointing. I knew this day was coming...but it's disappointing nonetheless."
Taney County Prosecutor Jeff Merrell
In December of last year, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled that, under the current statutory scheme, Missouri’s Public Defenders could not manage their case load by taking on new felony cases over misdemeanor offenses.
This is the first time an office of a Missouri Public Defender has not accepted new cases since that ruling.
Kelly says that each individual judge will have to decide if they are going to hold cases that are filed after the closing date for the public defenders office. " If they want to create a waiting list, they can do that, but the court will have to make that decision and it will probably mean that we will close to new cases earlier in the month. We won't be surprised if this ends up in front of the Supreme Court again."
According to Kelly, "The Springfield Defender Office is the first to close its doors to new cases, but it will likely have company from other defender offices soon enough. As of today’s date, J. Marty Robinson, the Director of Missouri’s Public Defender System has given notice to another twenty Judicial Circuits that the defender offices serving their courts are also exceeding maximum caseload limits and are facing similar certification and closure if informal efforts to divert caseload in those areas do not prove more successful than they did in Greene County."