Missouri’s public defender system is so badly underfunded and understaffed its lawyers are unable to provide even rudimentary representation for indigent clients, who often languish in jail or appear in court without attorneys, according to a class-action lawsuit seeking to force the state to increase funding.

Missouri’s public defender system is so badly underfunded and understaffed its lawyers are unable to provide even rudimentary representation for indigent clients, who often languish in jail or appear in court without attorneys, according to a class-action lawsuit seeking to force the state to increase funding.

The ACLU of Missouri, the Roderick, the Solange MacArthur Justice Center at St. Louis and the Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe law firm contend in the lawsuit filed Thursday that the public defenders budget is “shockingly inadequate,” paying only $356 per case, which ranks Missouri 49th out of 50 states in per capita indigent defense funding. Public defenders spend fewer than the minimum hours recommended by the American Bar Association in more than 97 percent of their cases, according to the lawsuit.

“Despite the best efforts of MSPD’s dedicated attorneys and support staff, MSPD’s crushing workloads result in indigent defendants throughout this state being actually or constructively denied their right to counsel at critical stages of their cases,” according to the lawsuit.

It would take another $20 million per year and more than 300 additional lawyers for the state’s public defender system to provide “minimally adequate representation to indigent defendants,” according to the lawsuit.

Michael Barrett, director of the Missouri State Public Defender Office, in August 2016 assigned a case to then-Gov. Jay Nixon, a lawyer, to protest Nixon’s funding proposals for the office. The agency also sued over Nixon’s budgeting decisions. A judge later ruled Barrett didn’t have the authority to appoint Nixon to a case and the lawsuit was dismissed. 

Barrett, who is a defendant in the ACLU lawsuit, said Thursday the department needs to double its current 370 attorneys to handle the more than 800,000 cases it handles each year.

“I’ve done everything short of setting myself on fire to draw attention to the situation that the state has put us in,” Barrett said. “That poor persons in this state, including poor children, are being pushed through the criminal justice system, fined excessively, and deprived of their liberty, without receiving the benefit of an attorney who has the necessary time to look into their case.”

The lawsuit also names Gov. Eric Greitens and members of the Missouri Public Defenders Commission. Greitens’ spokesman did not immediately respond Thursday to a request for comment.

The state appropriated $41.5 million for the public defender office in 2017, a $4.5 million increase from the previous year but Nixon then cut $3.5 million of that to help balance the state budget. Greitens, who was elected last year to replace Nixon, has proposed spending $40.5 million for the agency in the 2018 budget that starts July 1, which restores $2.5 million of Nixon’s cuts but is still $1 million less than the agency was expecting to receive this year.