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New Non-Profit Aims to Help Missouri’s Overburdened Public Defender System

Missouri Capitol Building
j.stephenconn
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Missouri Statehouse in Jefferson City

A new non-profit group will enlist volunteer lawyers from private law firms to take on some of the Missouri State Public Defender System’s heavy caseload.

Richard Scherrer, one of the founding members of the group, said The Missouri Coalition for the Right to Counsel expects to take 50-100 cases per year.

Michael Barrett, the state Public Defender Director, said in a hearing last year that the office had handled more than 70,000 cases in 2015.

The Missouri public defender system is ranked 49th in the nation in funding. 

This month, the ACLU filed a lawsuit against the state of Missouri on behalf of five defendants who say this lack of funding has made the public defender’s office unable to provide them with their constitutional right to counsel.

In a press release, the ACLU of Missouri said “The state’s public defenders don’t have the time or resources to provide adequate legal representation and are unable to talk to their clients about possible witnesses, exculpatory evidence, plea negotiations, or trial strategy.”

Anthony Rothert, Legal Director at the ACLU of Missouri said in the release that the underfunding of the public defender system had caused a constitutional crisis in the state. 

Scherrer, a former managing partner at Armstrong Teasdale in St. Louis, said that in addition to helping the public defender system provide defendants the representation they need, the Coalition will offer young lawyers an opportunity to gain critical experience in jury trials.

“This was not a difficult sell to get law firms to be involved in this,” said Sherrer. 

“The ultimate, I would say, legal experience, is representing a defendant charged with a crime who can’t afford it, in a jury trial.”

21 law firms from around the St. Louis area have signed up to partner with the Coalition. They will provide attorneys who will be mentored by public defenders as they handle the cases from start to finish.

Sherrer said that once the program is established in St. Louis, the Coalition will expand into Kansas City and later Columbia, Jefferson City and any other populated areas of the state where there is interest.

Volunteer lawyers will begin training at the end of April and start accepting cases on May 1.