After going a decade without funding for any new attorneys, the Missouri Public Defender System is bracing for good news.
Budget proposals from the Missouri House, Senate and Gov. Jay Nixon include provisions that would allocate money to 12 new full-time defenders.
"It's as close to a done deal as it can be without the signature actually on the line," said Cat Kelly, deputy director of the state public defender system. "This is a very big deal."
But for a public defender operation as troubled as Missouri's -- commonly referenced as one of the country's most overworked -- the new positions won't offer much relief.
"It's not what we need to fix the problem, but it's a very large step," Kelly said.
She estimates the system, currently staffed with about 360 attorneys, needs an influx of nearly 200 to fully meet the needs of clients statewide.
More than $850,000 proposed for attorneys is not a new allocation of funds to the public defender system.
Rather, the legislature would repurpose money the system currently uses to contract cases out to private lawyers.
"Gov. (Matt) Blunt had a policy of not increasing the number of state employees," Kelly said. "He had made clear he would veto any increase."
So two years ago, the legislature approved additional contract funds as a way to aid the public defender system. The measure being discussed would convert some of that money into new hires.
"I think it's a much better use of the money," said Rod Hackathorn, head of the Springfield public defender office. "Especially if I can get one of those (positions)."
And it's quite possible one of the new lawyers could go to Springfield's office, which currently houses 18 attorneys and handles cases in Greene, Christian and Taney counties.
In October, the office became one of just three in the state to enforce a new Missouri Public Defender Commission rule allowing offices to refuse cases if they exceed maximum caseload capacity for three consecutive months.
At that point, Springfield's public defenders were operating at nearly 160 percent capacity. They began turning down certain probation violation, traffic and collections cases.
The move spawned a partnership between the courts and the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association in which private attorneys pick up probation violation cases.
This "Public Defender Project" currently has 53 participants, mainly civil attorneys who have attended training sessions on how to handle probation violation matters.
Judges and participants alike say the program has been a vital help.
"I think it's increased efficiency," said Greene County Circuit Judge Calvin Holden.
While public defenders may be too overburdened with other work to prepare for probation violation cases, private attorneys come to court ready to argue, Holden said.
"All the private attorneys I've had have been more than effective."
The program harks back to a time before the 1972 creation of Missouri's Public Defender System, when judges would simply appoint attorneys to represent poor defendants at no cost.
"Even senior members of the bar would get appointed to misdemeanor cases or felonies or whatever it was," said Link Knauer, a Springfield attorney who participates in the program. "It gave the bar as an institution a set of eyes and knowledge about how the prosecutor's office was performing."
The current program gives young attorneys the opportunity for new courtroom experience. Knauer said: "It's a benefit to us, but I think it's far more a benefit to the system."
In her 2009 State of the Judiciary Address, Missouri Supreme Court Chief Justice Laura Denvir Stith praised the Springfield bar for its cooperation. The organization has also been nominated for an award from the American Bar Association.
Not all public defender offices have received such help.
In November, the Public Defender Commission asked a Missouri appeals court to uphold its right to refuse cases. That was a response to judges in Boone County appointing defenders to cases they indicated they would not accept.
Last week, the appeals court ruled the public defender system does not have the right to refuse cases, putting the future of such a strategy in doubt.
Kelly said the commission will ask the Missouri Supreme Court to review the matter. There is also legislation pending that would specifically allow the Public Defender Commission to determine, and enforce, maximum caseloads.
"Certainly we are still hopeful that judges and prosecutors will realize there's a case overload and work to work around it," Kelly said.
In Greene County, the effort involving the bar association was set up as temporary.
In creating the Public Defender Project, the Springfield Metropolitan Bar Association told attorneys they'd be serving only until the end of the year.
"When we set it up, our hope was that by the end of 2009 that they would have things worked out," said Crista Hogan, the association's executive director.