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State Audit Released On Mo. Public Defenders

The Missouri state auditor released a report Wednesday on the state’s Public Defender system.

Among the findings: public defenders need to better track the hours they spend on each case and update the standards they use to determine what’s the appropriate caseload.

Auditor Tom Schweich says Public Defenders have relied on national standards that are out-of-date.

(via Flickr/steakpinball) /

"They recognize what we said was accurate and they’ve agreed to implement the recommendation, and one of them is that you’ve got to use actuals in determining whether overworked or not," Schweich said. "You can’t use a 1973 methodology that uses an apples to oranges comparison."

Public Defender director Cat Kelly says they expect to put a new system of tracking cases in place by the end of the year and to update the protocol sometime next year.

In the meantime, she says they’ll continue to use the current protocol.

That likely means public defenders in many offices will turn away cases this fall because they’ve exceeded their caseloads.

Kelly says that’s because a national public defender expert, Dean Norman Lefstein, found the national standards the Missouri protocol is based on weren’t strict enough.

"His objections are that it has us taking too many cases, rather than too few," Kelly said. "Given that assessment that we are not turning away more cases than we should be under this protocol we’re very comfortable with proceeding with the protocol we have while building a better lifeboat."

The state auditor’s report overall rating of the public defender system was “fair.”

Schweich said while they found numerous issues, the public defenders have agreed to address them.

The President of the Association of Prosecuting Attorney, St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCullough, said in a statement that the audit “shattered” the claim that there is a public defender caseload crisis.

The audit did include that public defender’s caseloads have increased 70% since 1990, while staffing has gone up 58%.

Follow Maria Altman on Twitter:@radioaltman

Copyright 2021 St. Louis Public Radio. To see more, visit St. Louis Public Radio.

Altman came to St. Louis Public Radio from Dallas where she hosted All Things Considered and reported north Texas news at KERA. Altman also spent several years in Illinois: first in Chicago where she interned at WBEZ; then as the Morning Edition host at WSIU in Carbondale; and finally in Springfield, where she earned her graduate degree and covered the legislature for Illinois Public Radio.
Maria Altman
Maria is a reporter at St. Louis Public Radio, specializing in business and economic issues. Previously, she was a newscaster during All Things Considered and has been with the station since 2004. Maria's stories have been featured nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition, as well as on Marketplace.