What Is Your Definition of “Speedy”?
The Post-Dispatch ran a front-page story last Friday revealing the glacial pace of "justice" in the city of Saint Louis. Because of a variety of reasons, nearly 400 citizens have sat imprisoned in the city jail for more than a year without ever having their cases brought to trial. Eighty of those prisoners have been incarcerated for more than two years while waiting for trial.
Both the state and federal constitutions recognize in unambiguous terms that individuals accused of crimes are entitled to a speedy trial. The right to a speedy trial reflects the American notions that one must be presumed innocent until proven guilty and that the government must provide due process of law in order to deprive someone of their liberty. Those responsible for these provisions recognized that the government must not be permitted to imprison presumptively innocent people any longer than necessary to afford a fair trial. Yet here in Saint Louis, this precise evil is taking place.
Part of the problem is that the public defender’s office has a limited number of attorneys to manage the host of Saint Louis defendants who cannot afford to hire their own lawyers. According to one representative from the public defender’s office, as many as 150 extra attorneys (statewide) would be necessary to meet national caseload standards, yet legislators are hesitant to authorize any additional funds for attorney hires.
I’m certainly no advocate for increasing the size of government or the amount it spends, but let’s consider the financial repercussions of this understaffing. The city estimates that holding a prisoner in the city jail costs about $50 per person per day. The United States Supreme Court’s current position is that eight months (240 days) should be adequate time for a serious felony case to go to trial, assuming the defendant does not voluntarily initiate delays. Illinois is even stricter on the government, requiring prisoners to be released if they are not brought to trial within four months (120 days).
For an accused person to be held in jail for eight months (as opposed to posting bail), taxpayers can expect to spend roughly $12,000 per defendant, not including the cost of legal expenses. The incarceration bill for the 400 accused who have spent more than a year waiting for trial comes to at least $7.3 million $2.5 million more than would have been necessary if they were brought to trial within the time period deemed to be reasonable by the Supreme Court, and $4.9 million more than would have been necessary under Illinois’ guidelines.
The judges responsible for overseeing St. Louis’s criminal docket have instituted new procedures that they believe will provide some improvement to the system, but they have also
asked the Board of Aldermen to consider an additional $520,000 to bring
in additional defense attorneys to help alleviate the logjam. It is true that many of these trials, once held, will likely result in convictions. In those cases, taxpayers will still bear the financial burden of incarcerating felons, although the burden will be shared by the rest of the state whereas the city jail is financed primarily by local taxpayers. If the new public defenders resulted in just 84 of these accused citizens ending their incarcerations (either through acquittal or plea bargaining) within the Supreme Court’s eight-month guideline, the attorneys would, essentially, have paid for themselves. While I cannot speak to whether the full $520,000 would be necessary to secure the constitutional rights of those being held without trial, hiring more public defenders is an idea worthy of the city’s consideration.