Missouri State Public Defender Director Pushes Public Defense Funding Into National Spotlight

By Genevieve Citrin
Senior Research Associate
Justice Programs Office, American University
Aug. 30, 2016

Even in the context of a national crisis in indigent defense funding, Missouri finds itself the second least funded system in the country.
— Michael Barrett

In a letter dated August 2, 2016, Missouri State Public Defender (MSPD) Director Michael Barrett exercised his authority through a unique provision of legislation and assigned Missouri Governor Jay Nixon a criminal case. As indicated in Missouri Statute Section 600.042.1, the Director of MSPD has the authority to assign legal representation to any member of the Missouri state bar; in this instance, Barrett assigned a case to Governor Nixon. While a judge ruled on August 25, 2016 in favor of Governor Nixon, stating that only the court can assign cases, the original assignment has attracted national attention. What prompted this unusual maneuver and how did Barrett come to find himself leading this effort?

A native of New York, Barrett began his professional career as a public defender in Albany County before becoming the Codes Counsel for the New York State Assembly, where he was charged with drafting criminal justice legislation. When Governor Eliot Spitzer took office, Barrett was hired under now Director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance Denise O'Donnell as Executive Counsel of the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. Barrett stayed in this position for the remainder of his time in New York until his wife, Sebrina Barrett, took a job as the Executive Director of the Missouri Bar Association in 2011. Barrett continued his career in politics in Missouri as Deputy General Counsel to Governor Nixon with a brief stint as Director of the State Emergency Management Agency. Barrett finally returned to public defense work as General Counsel for MSPD and ultimately became the Director in June 2015. Barrett is dedicated to upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States of America, which brought him to MSPD.

Missouri's public defender system is ranked 49th out of all 50 states in terms of funding. While increased funding has been allocated to MSPD over the past years, these funds have repeatedly been withheld. At the same time, cost has increased 18% since 2009 as have caseloads 12% just over the last year. The final straw came this summer.

Repeatedly, studies have found that Missouri's public defender system is operating with minimal resources and has caseloads that far exceed national standards. Missouri has undergone 5 high level task forces that have studied their system and is the only state to have undergone an American Bar Association sponsored audit that established caseloads. The ABA study concluded that MSPD would need more than 250 additional lawyers to meet caseload limits and their ethical duties. This frustration was voiced by Barrett who explained that attorneys who left MSPD said that the primary reason for leaving was a stated inability to ethically perform their job. This has contributed to the high turnover rate of 20 percent; nonetheless, the Governor has continued to cut their funding.

Assigning a case to Governor Nixon was not the first move taken by Barrett this summer. With the Missouri Public Defender Commission, Barrett filed a lawsuit against Governor Nixon for withholding $3.5 million of allocated funds. Without any relief, Barrett took another drastic step; he assigned a case to Governor Nixon. In an email from Barrett, he stated, "what compelled me to enlist the Governor was the fact that we were very much at the end of our rope. Even in the context of a national crisis in indigent defense funding, Missouri finds itself the second least funded system in the country. By contrast, we are eighth highest in the rate at which we incarcerate our citizens. This is a glaring correlation."

Compelled by his conviction and dedication to the Constitutional right to counsel and his colleagues, Barrett invoked a power that he had never exercised before and shed light on the dire situation that MSPD faces to the nation. As Barrett remarked in his oath of office address, "it will [nonetheless] be the greatest honor for me to champion, not only the liberties guaranteed under the Bill of Rights for poor people in this state, but also these defenders of liberty, those who take up the fight every day." And this is exactly what Barrett is doing.