COLUMBIA, Mo. - The Boone County public defender's office is working to reduce the number of people on its "wait list" with some new money from the state.
David Wallis, head of the public defender's office covering Boone and Cooper counties, said he hopes the money will help whittle down a list of hundreds of people awaiting legal representation from his office. Wallis said the money, used to hire private attorneys at a fixed rate, has reduced the wait list by more than 100 cases.
Public defender offices across the state scrambled to make changes last year when the Missouri Supreme Court punished one of their own for failing to abide by ethical rules on managing work. The decision said public defenders needed to follow the rules governing time spent with clients and the number of cases handled, despite years-long concerns from public defenders that attorneys were forced to take on too many cases.
Wallis' office developed a "wait list" in response. Attorneys would immediately handle cases for people in custody, while putting others that qualified for their help not in jail on a list. Wallis said the list hovered around 600 different cases a few months ago.
State leaders with the public defender system gave the district office $100,000 last month to reduce its wait list. Wallis said the decision stemmed from the understanding shown by local judges, including Presiding Judge Kevin Crane, who picked private attorneys to take on some cases the public defender's office couldn't handle.
"With the hope that we will continue to work with the court and there will be additional funds, hopefully, down the line to further address the wait list," Wallis said.
So far, the office has spent $66,562.50 of that $100,000, according to data from deputy director Sarah Aplin.
The public defender's office pays private attorneys to handle aging cases on the wait list. Wallis said the office will pick felony cases that have been on the longest - some of them have been there since April - and contact one of 19 private attorneys that have signed up to take them. The office then pays the attorney based on the severity of the charge. First-degree murder, for example, would run the office $10,000 while a probation violation case would cost $375.
Wallis said he believes the changes have helped his attorneys do better work for in-custody clients. Caseloads per attorneys have dropped by half, from 120 cases to 60 cases each. Wallis said his attorneys are working longer hours, which he thinks is a result of them getting more time to focus on their cases.
"I think that sort of addresses the helplessness they felt when they had so many cases," Wallis said. "Now they actually can work, and the time they devote actually has a positive outcome."
Wallis admits, though, that the seemingly better work done on those cases comes at the cost of others having to wait months for legal help. He said he was not sure if money would completely solve the problem.
The state legislature appropriated $3.5 million more for the public defender system in the new fiscal year, with much of it dedicated to salary increases for district defenders and a "new compensation structure more closely aligned with the compensation of other government attorneys," according to budget documents from the state.