Criminal Law Reform issue image

Shondel Church, et al. v. State of Missouri, et al.

Location: Missouri
Status: Ongoing
Last Update: March 9, 2017

What's at Stake

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Missouri, along with the MacArthur Justice Center, and the law firm of Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP, filed a class action lawsuit against the State of Missouri over its public defender office’s inability to provide adequate defense to poor people accused of crimes across the state, as required under the U.S. and Missouri Constitutions.

Under the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution, those who have been charged with a crime and face the possibility of jail time have a right to adequate legal representation, regardless of their ability to pay for an attorney. More than 50 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court, in Gideon v. Wainwright, held that the Constitution requires every state to provide counsel for criminal defendants who are unable to afford an attorney, citing this right as a necessity—not a luxury—for those facing prosecution by the government.

The State of Missouri has failed to meet this constitutional obligation. For more than two decades, the state has neglected to provide the resources required to adequately provide legal representation to lower-income Missourians accused of crimes. Unfortunately, this longstanding problem is occurring across the entire state, due to the state’s ongoing failure to properly fund, or otherwise support, the provision of public defense services in Missouri.

At an average of only $355 per case, Missouri ranks 49th out of 50 states in per capita public defense spending. In fact, Missouri spends just one-third of the national average per capita on public defense services. Without sufficient funding, overstretched and under-resourced public defense attorneys in Missouri are forced to handle too many cases and devote too few hours to each case. Public defenders average just 8.7 hours on the most serious non-homicide felonies. This amounts to less than 20 percent of the minimum time recommended by the American Bar Association (ABA). Overall, they are forced to devote fewer than the minimum hours recommended by the ABA in more than 97 percent of their cases.

Despite the best efforts of the Missouri Public Defender office’s dedicated attorneys and staff, these crushing workloads result in Missourians who cannot afford an attorney being denied their right to counsel at critical stages of their cases. They are frequently denied any representation whatsoever at arraignments and other initial hearings, leaving them to fend for themselves when bond determinations and other critical decisions are made.

Even when public defenders are present in Missouri, they are often ill-equipped to advocate effectively for their clients—lacking both the time and funds to do so. High workloads force public defenders to perform too little investigation too late to effectively identify evidence and review documents vital to their work.

Because of these deficiencies, Missourians often remain in pretrial detention when they might otherwise have been released on bail. This reality leads many to plead guilty just to get out of jail, irrespective of the merits of the state’s case against them. They are effectively incarcerated because of their economic status.

When indigent defendants do exercise their right to a trial, they are frequently deprived of effective defense because their public defenders do not have the time to investigate the state’s allegations, interview witnesses, or even communicate consistently with their clients.

These many deficiencies ensure that Missourians who require a public defender do not receive the effective assistance of counsel that is guaranteed by the United States and Missouri Constitutions. Church v. Missouri is thus brought by five people who have suffered under the current inadequate and unconstitutional practices of the Missouri State Public Defenders Office, and whose experiences are typical of indigent defendants across the state. Each plaintiff was, or is currently being, denied adequate defense because of the lack of funding and the overwhelming workloads of court-appointed attorneys in their home state.

The State of Missouri faces an urgent constitutional crisis. Church v. Missouri seeks an end to this crisis and a future in which the State of Missouri equips and funds public defenders so they can provide clients with the level of representation to which they are constitutionally entitled.

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