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Recent Missouri Editorials

October 24, 2017

Kansas City Star, Oct. 22

Innocent Kansas City man spent a year in jail because of the public defender’s crushing caseload

Public defenders representing some 100 clients at a time say a 22-year-old Kansas City man arrested for a robbery he didn’t commit spent 13 months in the Jackson County jail as a direct result of their understaffing and impossible workload.

It was a year before they even had a chance to investigate his case, said Ruth Petsch, head of the Kansas City public defender’s office. Then they quickly realized he couldn’t have committed the crime. Assault charges were dropped, and he was finally released last month.

“I wouldn’t say his situation was unique,” either, said Petsch, whose 34 attorneys are so swamped that the Missouri Supreme Court warned last month that they could lose their law licenses if they don’t provide the legally required level of representation. But now courts also say they have no right to refuse to take on still more cases and must get a judge’s permission each time.

As a result, a number of public defenders in Missouri have resigned in recent weeks. (“I have long wanted to practice indigent defense,” reads one anguished resignation letter, but as “my law license is my livelihood.how I feed my family and put a roof over our heads, I will not risk it.”) Kansas City public defenders have said they have to stop taking on new cases for now. And presiding Jackson County Circuit Court Judge John Torrence said that’s not what’s going to happen. In his view, the real problem is that Petsch’s office is not being realistic.

Five years ago, Petsch started assigning attorneys to handle cases from start to finish instead of assigning them to courtrooms where most cases were cleared quickly in what she called “plea factories.” Since that changed, said Torrence, the system’s slowed to a creep. “In a perfect world, it would be lovely if everybody could handle a charge like wealthy people do,” he said. But they can’t because the Missouri legislature is “never going to say, ‘Let’s do this the way O.J. Simpson was represented.’ ”

That’s for sure. But there’s a lot of daylight between Simpson’s “dream team” and Missouri public defenders in the second-worst funded system in the country. Even with $4.5 million in new funding this year, none went into easing the caseloads, but had to be spent to pay outside lawyers in cases with multiple indigent defendants who couldn’t be represented by the same office, said Michael Barrett, director of Missouri’s public defender system. Defendants in low-level cases often plead guilty when they’re not, because they’d lose leases and jobs if they waited for their cases to go to trial.

Of the 22-year-old finally released from the Jackson County jail last month, Torrence said, “I know about that case. That case is an atrocity; it should never have been filed.” Still, the idea that his lawyers didn’t have time to investigate until recently “is horseshit. Sadly, with the Missouri legislature, there’s a triage aspect to it, and if you’re putting that case at the back of the line, something’s wrong.”

The case fell apart because only 23 seconds after the robbery victim called 911, right after being accosted in front of the Embassy Suites, the man later charged with the crime was clocked on a camera inside a QuikTrip on Main Street, a six-minute walk away, or a three-minute drive. Even someone sprinting at the speed of the world record holder would have taken a minute and change. As cops moved in, the young man did run because he’d just stolen a fountain soda from the convenience store. So for what Petsch called “a 4-cent loss to QuikTrip,” he lost a year of his life, and Jackson County taxpayers paid about $95 a day for 13 months.

He’d be in jail still except that for the fact that without super powers, his involvement in the robbery was a physical impossibility. And so is the expectation that public defenders can represent their clients ethically without more help.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Oct. 21

A hateful new discrimination law with a deliberate $500,000 mistake

The Missouri Legislature has a reputation for passing bills that are later discovered to have mistakes in them. This year, lawmakers were warned in advance that a bill contained a costly mistake, but they passed it anyway. What’s more, Gov. Eric Greitens ignored the warnings and signed it.

As a result, Missouri stands to lose at least $500,000 a year in federal housing funds. That possibility was raised when the Legislature was considering Senate Bill 43 last spring. The bill’s fiscal note — which estimates budgetary impact — said the state could lose up to $1.2 million a year in federal money. Lawmakers paid no heed.

The money is not the worst thing about Senate Bill 43, which amended the state’s human rights laws to make it almost impossible to win employment, public accommodation and housing discrimination cases. People claiming discrimination on the basis of ethnicity, sex, national origin, religion, age or disability now have to prove such bias was the motivating factor, not merely a contributing factor. The bill also weakens protections for whistleblowers who call attention to employers’ unlawful actions.

Greitens signed it on June 30, claiming it brought Missouri laws into compliance with federal law and matched most other states’ laws. It turns out that’s not quite true.

On July 14, an official of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development sent a letter to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights officially notifying the state it was out of compliance with four provisions of the federal Fair Housing Assistance Act. The act requires states to have laws “substantially equivalent” to federal standards. Missouri has until March 2018 to get back into compliance.

From its inception, SB 43 was an embarrassment to the state. It was sponsored by Sen. Gary Romine, R-Farmington, whose rent-to-own business was involved in a racial discrimination case. Romine denied the case was his motivation, pointing out that SB 43 wouldn’t retroactively affect its outcome.

After the bill’s passage, the Missouri chapter of the NAACP issued a “travel warning” for people passing through Missouri. Social activists warned of possible business boycotts of Missouri similar to those threatened in Indiana and North Carolina after discriminatory laws were passed.

No such boycotts have materialized, but it’s not hard to imagine companies with socially diverse workforces — say, for instance, Amazon — being put off by Missouri’s choice to all but enshrine workforce discrimination.

Sen. Ryan Silvey, a maverick Kansas City Republican, reacted to the HUD action by tweeting, “This is terrible. We were told SB 43 mirrored Fed rules, not violated them. We need to fix this ASAP!”

Yes, they do. They should throw out this entire regressive law. It’s not as expensive as the $100 million-a-year tax-break mistake lawmakers made in 2015, but it’s every bit as shameful.


St. Joseph News-Press, Oct. 17

Tax breaks must be tracked

Missouri lawmakers have a choice: accept the state auditor’s recommendations on tracking the impact of tax breaks, or accept excuses.

We’re disappointed this even is a question. And maybe it’s not. But the first response from the state Department of Revenue was not encouraging.

State Auditor Nicole Galloway recently identified an array of problems with the state’s extensive program of awarding incentives to businesses to spur economic activity, and has proposed a reasonable solution.

Galloway said estimates of the costs and benefits of tax breaks and incentives awarded sometimes are inaccurate. Further, the state rarely follows up to gauge the accuracy of the projections and calculate the true impact after it passes new tax exemptions.

The most glaring finding in her report last week: Of the 209 sales and use tax exemptions on the books as of June 2016, state revenue agents track the specific impact of only three.

“I’m not saying that exemptions are bad. I’m not saying that incentives are bad. They can be useful tools,” Galloway said. ” . But as a taxpayer, we want to know that each one works as it should and as taxpayers we’re getting a return on investment.”

We couldn’t say this any better. That’s why it is dispiriting to hear the revenue agency respond to the report by agreeing it is a good goal to track and report exemptions, then make these arguments for why that may not happen:

Doing so would put a burden on businesses (which, we will add, are benefiting at the expense of taxpayers).

Reporting errors likely would mean flawed data (unless, we might add, the state takes steps over time to improve the process for collecting and verifying the data).

The department would require a substantial increase in staffing that’s currently not affordable (or, in the view of many taxpayers, it could look at its priorities and workload, and perhaps give this important function a higher priority).

Lawmakers should not take “no” for an answer. The tax credits and incentives could well yield justifiable returns, including through job creation and economic expansion. But we don’t know.

This situation will not get better until lawmakers struggling with tight budgets in Jefferson City recognize part of the problem could be overly generous tax credits that fail to do what they were intended to do.

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