As of January 2020, over 4,600 individuals, roughly 600 of whom are currently in pretrial detention, were on the waiting list for an attorney in the State of Missouri. These individuals have been charged with crimes and have already qualified for a court-appointed attorney but are being forced to wait for an indeterminate amount of time for one to become available due to an overburdened indigent defense system. As a result, a criminal defendant will likely wait months, or sometimes even years, before they are assigned an attorney.

Along with the ACLU of Missouri, Roderick & Solange MacArthur Justice Center, and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe, we have filed a class action lawsuit and preliminary injunction to end Missouri’s unconstitutional use of public defender “waiting lists.

The lawsuit details the devastating impacts of attorney waitlists on those who have been charged with crimes and left to fend for themselves and urges the court to order the state of Missouri to immediately stop the practice and either immediately appoint counsel or drop any charges pending against defendants who have not been provided with an attorney to defend them.

Despite being denied an attorney, individuals are still expected to navigate the court system while they wait for a lawyer. After being placed on the waiting list, individuals receive no access to an attorney during critical stages of the criminal legal process, including at arraignment, where bond is often determined with input from the prosecution, but without advocacy from defense counsel. As such, indigent defendants placed on waiting lists are often forced to remain in jail simply because they are unable to advocate effectively for a reduction in their bond amount or release on their own recognizance.

Individuals placed on waiting lists are severely impacted outside of the courtroom as well. Those who must wait in pretrial detention do so without the opportunity to communicate with counsel or build a defense. They often lose their jobs, their housing, any financial stability they may have had, and regular contact with their families. While this is happening, potentially helpful evidence gets destroyed, lost, or eroded. Key witnesses disappear or their memories fade, making it nearly impossible for individuals to develop an effective defense to the charges against them. Indigent defendants in Missouri—and across the country—are entitled to the same timely and vigorous representation that the state constitution guarantees to anyone charged with a crime. So, we are asking the court to send a clear message to the MSPD and criminal court judges across the state that the use of waiting lists for legal representation violates the fundamental rights of indigent defendants and will not be tolerated.   

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