Missouri's Top Public Defender Doubles Down On Jay Nixon's Assignment

Aug 11, 2016

Gov. Jay Nixon has recently questioned the authority of the director of the Missouri Public Defenders Office assigning him to defend an assault case in Cole County, Missouri.
Credit MoBikeFed / Flickr - CC

Any hopes Gov. Jay Nixon may have about patching things up with Missouri’s top public defender will have to be put on hold for a while longer.

Budget tensions came to a head last week when Michael Barrett, director of the state’s public defender’s office, assigned the governor to defend an assault case in Cole County, Missouri.

In response, Nixon questioned Barrett’s authority to do such a thing, and told reporters on Monday that the public defender’s office has more money now than when he became governor in 2009. Nixon, a former state attorney general, also said Barrett’s office failed to spend about $1.8 million in the last fiscal year.

In an interview this week with Steve Kraske on KCUR’s Up To Date, Barrett fired back.

“The governor has a case through my system and I do have the authority,” Barrett says. “I have a pretty unambiguous statute at my disposal that allows me to appoint any member in good standing with the Missouri Bar.”

As for the budget increases, Barrett says Nixon’s numbers are misleading.

Of a 15 percent budget increase Nixon cited, Barrett says only five to six percent goes to providing legal services. “During that same stretch of time our costs have gone up 18 percent, and just over the last year our cases increased from 74,000 cases a year to 82,000 cases a year,” Barrett says.

And that $1.8 million that didn’t get spent last year?

“It's just not true. I'm happy to provide documentation showing we left 52 cents on the table at the end of the fiscal year,” Barrett says. “He needs better budget people.”

The fracas is just the latest in a protracted battle over limited funds for all state departments. In June, Barrett’s office sued the Nixon administration over $3.5 million in withheld funding.

Ruth Petsch, Jackson County’s chief public defender, says less money means fewer lawyers to defend the indigent, bigger caseloads for her staff and an unfair burden for the poorest Missourians.

“Most of my attorneys are setting trials into the spring of 2017 or summer of 2017 right now,” Petsch says, “so you may sit in jail and not work and have your family not provided for because you're a public defender client."

When a trial date finally does roll around, the defender may not be able to devote the time it takes to do a good job on each case. “There’s a lot of corners that have to be cut,” Petsch says.

State Public Defender Director Barrett suggests spending more on his department could save the state money elsewhere, and that inadequate defense and the prison population are unmistakably linked.

Despite Missouri being the second least-funded public defender system in the country, it is “eighth highest in the rate at which we incarcerate our citizens,” Barrett says. “That’s a pretty glaring correlation.”

According to the Missouri Department of Corrections’ most recent annual report, their budget increased from almost $579 million in fiscal year 2006 to more than $710 million in fiscal year 2016.

“These are your education dollars, these are your health care dollars,” Barrett says. “When they’re tied up in back-end incarceration, they can't be spent on other things.”

Former Jackson County public defender Sean O’Brien puts the problem in even more stark terms.

“We have two justice systems, one for people of means and one for people without the means,” O’Brien says, and, for the state's poorest, the current system “functions more like a sausage grinder for them.”

Luke X. Martin is a freelance contributor for KCUR 89.3 and an assistant producer for 'Up To Date.' He can be reached at luke@kcur.org.