The head of the embattled Missouri Public Defender System is stepping down after more than four years on the job.
Michael Barrett said he’s resigning effective early or mid-November and taking a job in New York state.
It’s “more family driven than anything else,” he said in an email to KCUR. “Son is in 8th grade. If we were going to move, it was before he got into high school.”
Barrett said he had a job in hand, although he didn’t specify what it is, but he stressed it was not the reason for his departure.
As director of the public defender system, Barrett oversees more than 500 lawyers who represent indigent clients in criminal cases.
The system has been chronically underfunded for years, and in 2017 the ACLU sued Missouri and state officials, saying the system faced an “urgent constitutional crisis.”
Barrett, in his capacity as director of the system, is one of the lawsuit’s defendants. But during his tenure, Barrett waged an often lonely battle to persuade legislators to appropriate more money for the system.
“I’ve done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in,” Barrett told KCUR after the ACLU filed its lawsuit.
“Poor persons in this state, including poor children, are being pushed through the criminal justice system, fined excessively and deprived of their liberty, without receiving the benefit of an attorney who has the necessary time to look into their case,” Barrett said.
Sean O’Brien, the chief public defender in Kansas City from 1985 to 1989 and now a law professor at UMKC, said Barrett had an impossible job.
“You’re charged with the responsibility of effectively representing every person charged with a crime in the state of Missouri with about 25% of the resources that would be necessary to do that,” O'Brien said. “And he did as well as anybody to try to grab the legislature by the throat and lapels and throttle it.”
Ruth Petsch, who heads the public defender’s Kansas City office — the biggest in the system — said Barrett had “a really hard job” and “attacked it with a lot of force and spirit.”
“I think the attorneys in our office really felt supported by him,” Petsch said, noting that public defenders got their first raises in 20 years during Barrett’s tenure.
Missouri ranks 49th in the United States, just ahead of Mississippi, in the amount of money per capita it devotes to its public defender system, according to the ACLU’s lawsuit.
Earlier this year, a federal appeals court dismissed the suit against the state and the governor, ruling they were immune from suit. The case continues, however, against five other defendants, including Barrett and the members of the Missouri Public Defender Commission.
While the ruling dealt a blow to the possibility of forcing the state to appropriate more money for the system, the court could still take other corrective action, including ordering the defendants to reduce public defenders’ caseloads.
In May, the ACLU and the public defender system reached an agreement meant to ensure that indigent defendants are properly represented when they go to court. The agreement sets maximum caseloads for public defenders and allows them to turn down cases in certain circumstances.
Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt opposed the deal, saying it fails to protect the interests of the public and would allow “untold numbers of alleged felons to avoid criminal prosecution.” But in July, a federal judge denied Schmitt’s motion to intervene in the case. Schmitt has appealed the judge’s decision.
Barrett, a native New Yorker, was a public defender in Albany, New York, and worked on a variety of criminal reform initiatives there for the legislature and two different governors. He moved to Missouri in 2011 and later became then-Gov. Jay Nixon’s deputy general counsel. He was tapped to head the public defender system in March 2015.
In a move intended to highlight the public defender system’s woes, Barrett in 2016 tried to assign a case to Nixon, a lawyer, citing the overburdened public defender system and state budget cuts. A Cole County judge blocked the move, saying Barrett had no authority to do so.
In his email, Barrett said that his tenure was “all about closing the gap on justice – striving to ensure that justice decisions are made on the merits, and that poor people don't lose their liberty because they are poor.”
“Missouri has achieved nothing by climbing the ranks of the most over-incarcerated states,” he said. “The prison budget climbed more than $150 million in 10 years with no return on investment when it comes to driving down violent crime. I think we have helped change the conversation in that regard – outing judges when they incarcerate people because they are simply too poor to pay their fines or post bond.”
Barrett's wife, Sebrina A. Barrett, is executive director of the Missour Bar. She too will be leaving her post and moving with her husband to New York.
Dan Margolies is a senior reporter and editor at KCUR. You can reach him on Twitter @DanMargolies.