Judge William Hickle of Phelps County found that Missouri’s practice of putting poor criminal defendants on a waiting list to be appointed a public defender is unconstitutional while also granting a stay to give legislators more time to remedy the situation, reports the Courthouse News Service. Hickle cited continued reductions in the number of defendants currently on the list and the prospect of more funding being provided to the public defender’s office that would eliminate the list entirely as reasons for the stay. The case, which Hickle heard during a two-day bench trial in November, is stayed until June 30th. The American Civil Liberties Union, representing the plaintiffs, objected to the stay.
Jason Williamson, deputy director of the ACLU’s criminal law reform project based in New York, told the court that five of the named petitioners have spent 93, 107, 116, 1147 and 160 days, respectively, on the waiting list before being assigned representation. He cited numbers from 2019, when there were 4,690 defendants on the list. Of those, 2,744 had been waiting for at least three months; 2,233 for at least four months; 1,916 for at least five months; 1,546 for at least six months; and 600 for one year. When the trial occurred, there were roughly 2,000 people on the waiting list. Of those, 1,113 had been waiting for at least three months; 922 for at least four months; 734 for at least five months; 665 for at least six months; and 233 for at least one year. Hickle found that the state is required to provide counsel within a reasonable time after judicial proceedings against a defendant formally begin. Though courts have not specifically defined what a reasonable time is, the judge concluded that precedent held that a reasonable time was days or weeks, not months or years.