Concerns about a deteriorating, overwhelmed public defender system in the U.S. have ballooned as state budgets shrink and more defendants qualify for free legal counsel, reports the New York Times. “This has been a problem in good economic times, and now it's only worse,” said Jo-Ann Wallace of the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. “What you have is a situation where the eligible pool of clients is increasing, crime rates are potentially increasing, while the resources often for public defenders are going down.”
Missouri's per capita spending on public defense ranks 49th in the nation (only Mississippi spends less). State officials say the defenders system, with its 570 employees, is expected to receive more than $34 million this year. The state public defender says a true solution would require 125 more lawyers, 90 more secretaries, 109 more investigators, 130 more legal assistants and more space – all of which would cost about $21 million a year – a seemingly impossible suggestion, given the fiscal climate. They say fiscal constraints are colliding with the 1963 Supreme Court Gideon v. Wainwright decision that poor people accused of serious crimes must be provided with lawyers paid for by the government.