Counties get sympathy but no money from judges on juvenile legal costs
By: Darrell Todd Maurina
Posted: Saturday, June 6, 2009 11:33 pm
ROLLA, Mo. (June 6, 2009) — Faced with tens of thousands of dollars in added expenses caused by the need to pay additional attorneys to help low-income parents in juvenile court cases, county commissioners received sympathy but not many dollars Friday from the judges of the 25th Judicial Circuit.
Meeting in what’s called an “en banc” session, the judges told Pulaski County Presiding Commissioner Bill Ransdall and others that they ought to lobby the state legislature, not the judges, to solve the problem.
“Commissioners and coujnty clerks have powerful lobbies,” said Phelps County Associate Circuit Judge Ralph Haslag. “We know there are some unfair costs … we’re not trying to be unfair to you.”
Haslag and other judges said the risk of a person not having a legal advocate and then appealing is too great and the judges have to follow procedures to ensure adequate legal representation for poor parents.
Ransdall said Pulaski County faces major financial problems and will have great difficulty paying its share of a legal services bill that, for the four-county circuit, is expected to be more than $70,000 per year.
“We borrowed $150,000 last year to balance our budget because our sheriff’s jail was full,” Ransdall said. “Our county has never paid this before.”
Associate Circuit Judge John Clayton disagreed.
“Your county has paid it before because I’ve ordered it,” Clayton said.
Ransdall said he didn’t remember signing checks for any such bills, but acknowledged that they may have been paid before he was elected two years ago.
Clayton, whose Maries County jurisdiction is among the smallest and least affluent in the region, said he believed there were good reasons to pay for the additional attorneys but realized finding the money is difficult.
“I think it’s a great thing, I think it’s a wonderful thing, I just don’t want to pay for it and neither does anybody else,” Clayton said, noting that the general public is also demanding longer prison terms but doesn’t want to pay for larger jails.
“I know, I helped write some of those laws,” said Ransdall, a former member of the Missouri House of Representatives who chaired its budget committee.
Ransdall noted that the problem will only get worse if the economy continues to deteriorate, since more and more people will be eligible for the funds at the same time that the tax revenues drop.
Presiding Judge Mary Sheffield said she and Circuit Judge Tracy Storie have tried to find a solution to the problem and recommended that the four county commissions apply for judicial system funding that’s available as part of President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package.
“This is something you can do to help yourselves but we cannot. You know well I write and apply for a lot of grant money, but this is something we cannot do,” Sheffield said.
Pulaski County Clerk Diana Linnenbringer asked how that would work.
“Does the state of Missouri apply for it and then give it to the counties, or do the counties apply for it?” Linnebringer asked.
Greg Linhares, the head of the Office of the State Courts Administrator who served as a legal counsel to the Judicial Finance Commission from 2002 until assuming his current position in 2008, said funding is available on both the state and local levels, but 60 percent of the available funding is local money available after direct application by local units of government, including counties.
“That local portion doesn’t come from us at all. We’re willing with the grant office to help,” Linhares said. “It’s real money. It’s like the lottery, somebody is going to get it, but you can’t win if you don’t play.”
Ransdall said the Meramec Regional Planning Commission, which serves all the counties of the circuit, may be able to help write a grant application for stimulus package funding.
In the meantime, Clayton said tapping into the goodwill of members of the local bar associations may help provide legal representation for less-affluent people in juvenile cases.
“We’ve got a good response from the bar, people you wouldn’t ever expect would be involved in juvenile cases,” Clayton said, citing the Smith and Turley law firm of St. Robert and the Dan Birdsong law firm of Rolla as examples.
“The next time you tell a lawyer joke, remember that some of these guys are good people,” Clayton said.