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Mo. auditor finds public defender system outdated

Tom Schweich
State of Missouri

The Missouri State Auditor released a detailed audit Wednesday on public defender offices and their ability to handle new clients.

Missouri State Auditor Tom Schweich says the way in which the public defender system keep track of its caseloads is outdated. In the audit, Schweich raised concerns regarding the system’s reliance on national caseload standards dating back to 1973. He is deeming the so called “caseload crisis” to be based on “unsupported assumptions.”

Eric Zahnd, President of the Missouri Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, agrees with the audit. He says the public defenders are not fulfilling their inherent duties to the public.

“The public defender is refusing its constitutional obligation to represent Missouri’s poorest citizens without any reliable data to support those really extreme actions," Zahnd said.

The audit also states the public defender system is not efficiently spending the money it is given. It says the system has failed to collect more than $70 million in unpaid liens and notes.

Cat Kelly, director of the Missouri State Public Defender System, says the $70 million debt exists only on paper, because of the nature of the clients they serve.

“Realistically, we have no expectation of receiving that kind of money," Kelly said. "Historically, we are able to collect on about 24 percent on the liens that are filed.”

Eric Zahnd is hopeful for a complete overhaul of the system. He thinks public defenders should be reserved for serious felonies while representation of misdemeanors and low-level felonies, could be contracted out.

Cat Kelly says while this is a possible solution, the problem lies in the lack of money to contract out cases.

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