St. Louis County District Defender Stephen Reynolds has put forth a partial solution to what he calls “excessive and untenable” caseloads shouldered by the attorneys in his office: a waitlist for indigent defendants.
In a motion filed Oct. 28, Reynolds argued that “a de facto waitlist” system already has emerged because assistant public defenders in his office are so overburdened that on a frequent basis “phone calls are not returned” and “confined clients are not visited.” Thus at the very least, Reynolds argued, a waitlist would reduce the risk of those attorneys being found in violation of their professional obligations through no fault of their own.
In addition, Reynolds wrote, a waitlist that is operated in tandem with the appointment of private counsel to a limited set of defendants “can be implemented and managed without endangering community safety or causing disruption to other stakeholders.”
Reynolds said in an interview that he had “not heard any negative feedback” on his request. The St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office did not respond to a request for comment.
In January 2018, Reynolds formally brought the caseload issue to then-Presiding Judge Douglas Beach. Beach issued an order in March 2018 finding “cognizable reasons” to conclude that almost all of the assistant public defenders had caseloads so heavy they “would be unable to provide effective assistance of counsel.”
Beach ordered St. Louis County Circuit Court to investigate possible remedies. He also authorized the implementation of a waitlist and asked the public defender to determine a caseload capacity. The public defender responded by estimating that under the methodology put forth by RubinBrown, an accounting firm that had authored a study on this issue in 2014, a public defender’s caseload should not exceed 65 pending cases at any given time.
In his recent motion, Reynolds cited internal data suggesting that as of September most of his attorneys still faced caseloads 1.7 to 2.5 times larger than they reasonably should under the RubinBrown standard. He acknowledged that the burden had eased “slightly” since his original 2018 filing; for example, his office took on 4,018 cases in Fiscal Year 2019, which ended June 30, as compared to 4,486 in Fiscal Year 2015.
But, he added, violent crime is on the rise in the county, to the point at which assistant public defenders with only one or two years of experience are now taking on homicide cases — 15 new cases of which have landed in the office since July 1.
The concept of waitlists is not viewed favorably by some criminal-justice reformers.
Amy Breihan, director of the St. Louis office of the Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, said that waitlists “often result in indigent defendants, some of whom are in custody, being unable to talk to an attorney for weeks or months following their arrest. In the meantime, while they languish in pre-trial detention, they lose access to key evidence and witnesses, and many feel pressure to take a plea deal — without the benefit of advice from counsel — just to get out of jail. All of this despite the fact that they are innocent until proven guilty.”
Yet Reynolds said he designed his proposal to avoid such outcomes: Only defendants who are charged with low-level (C, D and E) felonies and put on pretrial release will be waitlisted. Those on the waitlist who have “relatively simple” cases, Reynolds proposed, may be appointed private counsel under a local rule that the court adopted in the wake of Beach’s ruling. Lastly, the public defender’s office would make monthly reports to the court regarding caseload numbers and accept new defendants as soon as conditions permit.
When he first filed for relief in 2018, the caseloads in his office were “insane,” Reynolds said.
“The numbers now,” he said, “while not insane, I would say are still excessive and untenable, so relief is needed.”
The case is In re: Missouri State Public Defender, 18SL-CC00129.