SIKESTON -- In a bit of irony, the state department that provides lawyers for people that can't afford representation can't even afford to hire more lawyers to keep up with the caseload.
One lawyer with the Missouri Public Defender System recently pointed that out to Cathy Kelly, deputy director. While the system has been beleaguered for years with rising caseloads but the same number of lawyers, it recently took another hit when director J. Marty Robinson announced a hiring freeze on Dec. 15.
"Obviously no one is happy about it," said Kelly. "It's really going to put a stress on our offices around the state, because we already had that shortage."
And while the freeze does affect all offices, an empty position will obviously make a bigger dent on those with fewer employees.
"If you take away one person, the weight stays the same," said Brandon Sanchez, district defender for District 34, which includes New Madrid and Pemiscot counties. "It is a really scary thought that we could lose one attorney and not have that position filled."
Four lawyers, including Sanchez, work out of the District 34 office. That is actually down from summer 2007, when, due to a reorganization, the office dropped from its five employees.
In the District 32 office in Jackson, which includes Scott and Mississippi counties, there are 12 lawyers on staff.
The reasoning behind the recent hiring freeze is that it is unable to meet payroll, due to a lower turnover -- just 2 percent over the past five months, compared to almost 100 percent during the first five years of the decade, according to an MPSD news release.
"It's really a catch-22," said Davis. "We want to keep all the senior people that we can, but that won't solve our payroll crisis."
In previous years, the system has relied on "vacancy savings" to help make payroll. Under that plan, when a senior lawyer left the system, their salary for the time it took to re-fill the position was used to make up a portion of the expenses. Kelly also pointed out that senior lawyers are typically replaced with those with less experience, who in turn earn a lower salary, which also accrues to help meet the system's payroll.
Kelly said several factors may have led to the lower turnover. "Most of the people who are in this line of work are because that's what they want to do," she said.
In addition, most lawyers end up leaving the system to go out and start their own practice -- and the economy just isn't encouraging that. "This isn't a climate where people are jumping off that cliff," she said.
Sanchez also pointed out the irony in the lower turnover. "People are staying in the system, which is what we had crossed our fingers for," he said. "But now its creating a problem."
He suggested that, in addition to the economic climate, some lawyers may be pushing off a possible job change to keep their co-workers from piling up a bigger caseload.
"We try to stay connected as an office, fill in for one another and help each other out," he said. "No one wants to leave and put the weight on others. And if we did lose someone, it would certainly be a challenge for the rest of the people in the office."
Statewide, there are about 300 cases per lawyer now, according to Kelly. When former Gov. John Ashcroft was in office, he set a standard of 235 cases per lawyer, but the last year it was met was in 1989.
"And since that time, caseloads have risen and staffing has risen, but at a lower rate," said Kelly. "And in 2000, staffing flatlined, while the cases continued to go up."
She also said the caseload number is misleading.
"Not all cases are equal," she said. "So, under our new rule, we look at the average hours per type of case, not the number of cases."
In July, the Public Defender Commission adopted a new rule, which establishes a maximum number of hours for each lawyer and also creates a mechanism for offices that exceed the standard to begin turning away some clients.
Three offices already turn away certain types of cases, and two more will next month, said Kelly.
"And Caruthersville (which covers New Madrid and Pemiscot counties) and Kennett will likely be the next on the list," said Kelly.
She said the types of cases turned away varies by jurisdiction.
"We sit down with the courts and prosecutors to determine what makes the most sense," she said. "We're looking at what is least likely to hurt clients, but will also give relief to our lawyers."
And the lawyers are stretched pretty thin.
"At least two attorneys took work home during Thanksgiving," Sanchez recalled. "Some weeks may feel a little less strained than others, but those weeks are getting fewer and further in between."
Those involved are hoping there is relief in sight, however. Pending is a supplemental budget request, that would add money to the fiscal year ending June 30. "That would allow us to fill all positions and make payroll," said Kelly.
Usually the earliest those requests are granted is March. The same level of funding will need to be included for the next budget "or we're just in the same boat that we're in now," Kelly said.
"The hard part is, the economy has hit every area of state government," said Kelly, adding she knows it may not be popular for taxpayers to funnel money into the public defender system. "But the question it really comes down to is, are we going to live by our constitution (and give people the right to a fair trial) or not?"