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Public Defenders Office in Springfield Closes Doors to New Cases Until August

Anyone charged with a crime in Greene, Taney and Christian counties who is unable to pay for an attorney will not be assigned a public defender until August—that’s because the Springfield Public Defender’s office has announced its attorneys cannot do their jobs properly due to high caseloads. Some public defenders across Missouri have reported juggling hundreds of cases at a time. On Friday, KSMU's Jennifer Moore spoke with Rod Hackathorn, who oversees Springfield’s Public Defenders Office.

[transcript of interview]:

Moore: Rod, can you tell me what led to yesterday’s announcement to close up shop until next month?Hackathorn: Well it’s been kind of a long process, really, that led up to this decision. The Public Defender Commission, which is over all of the public defenders offices in the state of Missouri, had enacted a rule over a year ago setting some caseload standards for each of the offices because we were overloaded and the legislature really didn’t provide for any different funds for us several years in a row.

We tried to enact this last year, and had refused certain types of cases—specifically probation violations and some misdemeanors. And that ended up in front of the [Missouri] Supreme Court. And in December of last year, they ruled that it was unconstitutional for us to refuse categories of cases.

But [the court] ultimately suggested that our remedy was to try to talk to the judges and prosecutors first to try to get things below the standard that was set. And if that failed, then basically our remedy was to shut the doors to all cases until we got back below that standard.

Moore: Walk me through a day in the life of one of the attorneys, one of the public defenders, who works in your office. How many cases does each lawyer typically keep?Hackathorn: Obviously, it fluctuates from month to month. But on average right now, most of them have around 120 to 130 open cases.

Moore: And what attention, or quality are they able to give to their clients, with that many cases?

Hackathorn: Well, therein lies the problem. The most serious cases get good attention, I believe, from most of our attorneys. Those facing the most prison time—our attorneys dedicate a lot of time to those cases. The ones who suffer are the folks who are charged with a lower grade felony or a misdemeanor. They basically just get shuffled through and very often, it’s a “meet and greet” at court with the attorney handling the case sometimes knowing very little about the substance of the facts.

Moore: Being an attorney yourself, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Miranda rights, or the Miranda warning, which came as a result of a 1966 case before the US Supreme Court. The court’s decision went something like this: when someone is arrested, they must be informed that “You have the right to remain silent.” They must also be told that they have the right to speak to an attorney, and “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you.” Will Springfield Police and other local law enforcement continue to say that now?Hackathorn: Yes. I’m sure they will. And just by the fact that we are refusing cases, anybody who is facing potential jail time or prison time in this area, this does not delay their sixth amendment right to an attorney. They still have right to counsel. So the question is, How do we deal with that situation? How do the courts deal with that situation? I think it’s unfair for our attorneys to basically put their licenses on the line—because they’re under the same standards as a private attorney--and tell them, “All right, you’re under the same standards, but we’re going to give you more cases than you can ever possibly effectively handle.”

Moore: So what will be the end result for someone who is accused of a crime, say, today?

Hackathorn: That is difficult for me to answer, simply because, at this point, it’s up to the judges, how they respond. As we’ve just started this, again this month, I don’t know how they’ll respond in the three different counties that we handle. So it’s kind of a wait-and-see process for right now.

Moore: Springfield is not alone in struggling with incredible caseloads before public defenders. What, in your opinion, is the solution to the plight of public defenders’ offices across the state? Hackathorn: The solution? That would take a smarter man than me. Obviously, money would fix [it]. But we are in tight fiscal times, and I understand that. And I’m sure those who are in charge of the system up in Columbia [the Public Defenders Commission] understand. So outside of more money for more attorneys, it gets difficult.

Some of the solutions that were suggested to the court would be to either appoint private counsel for some of these individuals, or possibly have prosecutors not seek jail time on some of the misdemeanors, which would take that off of our caseloads.

Moore; Do you think the fact that Springfield has closed its doors now will be a wake-up-call to the rest of the state?

Hackathorn: I don’t know. I don’t know—I know that, although we are the first office this year to reach this point where we have not only certified by started to refuse cases, there are many offices that are in that process and will probably be doing the same shortly.Moore: Rod Hackethorn, thank you very much.Hackathorn: Certainly, no problem.

Rod Hackathorn oversees the Public Defenders Office in Springfield. For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore.