In 3 1/2 years, the St. Louis public defender’s office has seen 36 attorneys exit an office that employs 28 defenders, says the National Law Journal. With starting salaries of $35,148, most new lawyers have law school loans double or triple the size of their annual pay, so they can’t afford to stay on the job, said chief public defender Eric Affholter. On top of that, since 2001, the statewide caseload of public defender trial cases has increased by more than 12,000 to over 88,000 cases. The Missouri Public Defender Commission, which oversees the state defender system, recently considered voting to stop accepting new cases.
A National Law Journal review shows that many public defender’s offices across the country are strained beyond capacity or tipping into crisis. Inadequate funding has led to constant turnover, staff reductions, and spiraling caseloads. Litigation over poorly funded public defender systems are pending in Michigan and Louisiana. New York attorneys, tired of inconsistent funding and a patchwork organization, are pushing this month to launch a statewide public defender system. Some prosecutor’s offices are not much better off. While salaries are slightly higher, prosecutors are seeing the same budgetary stalemates and rising caseloads as their defense colleagues. In one place prosecutors are thinking of unionizing to counteract static budgets and rising caseloads.