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Waiting list eliminated for Missouri Public Defender System services

When Mary Fox became the director of the Missouri Public Defender System in January 2020, there were about 5,800 cases on the waiting list.

Now, it no longer has a waiting list.

Fox said the waiting list was created because the Missouri Public Defender System did not have enough attorneys to handle all of the cases that were eligible for representation.

“Back in 2017, offices began to defer representation of people so that everyone who did receive representation, had an attorney who was able to handle every case on their caseload,” Fox said.

Fox said the Missouri Public Defender System typically opens about 80,000 cases a year but that has decreased as a result of COVID-19.

“Because of COVID, for several months, numbers were going down during the time when many people were staying in their houses under quarantine or out of concern for their safety,” Fox said. “As our case numbers went down, we were able to remove some cases from the waiting list. In addition, we took funds that we had available to contract cases to private attorneys during that time period.”

Fox said hiring additional attorneys was a huge factor in ending the waiting list.

“The General Assembly authorized 53 additional attorneys for our trial offices and the governor signed that legislation,” Fox said. “We've hired 43 of those 53 attorneys. That's the positive.”

Even with the additional attorneys hired, Fox emphasized they still have attorney openings due to people retiring and resigning.

“We need more attorneys so if there's an attorney out there hearing this looking for a job, please go to our website and submit an application," Fox said.

Fox said while the wait list is currently open, she is cautious that things can change quickly.

“I'm still cautious that as we come out of COVID-19, if case numbers increase and we are not able to hire enough attorneys, that could create a problem in terms of our being able to provide effective representation,” Fox said. “We're not out of the danger zone yet.”

Fox said the next step is to continue to hire more staff.

“There's a lot of benefits to being a member of the Missouri State Public Defender System. But we'd like to fill every position that we have available,” Fox said.