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Prosecutor pleads for more staff
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Prosecutor pleads for more staff

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Prosecutor's office

Ryan Miller, investigator for the St. Francois County Prosecutor's Office, speaks to the county commission about staffing and caseload issues.

The St. Francois County Prosecutor’s Office recently asked the county commission for more staff for the overwhelmed office.

County Prosecutor Melissa Gilliam said her office is experiencing significant challenges. Investigator Ryan Miller apprised the commission as to the overwhelming workload the prosecutors face and the increasing backlog of cases.

“We have to find a solution to make the county prosecutor’s office a more attractive place to work, and work better for the county in keeping employees. We currently have 3,638 active cases open,” he said. “We have four prosecuting attorneys currently employed. That’s a caseload of 909.5 per attorney. That’s a pretty staggering number.

“For comparison, there are 406 active cases at the Public Defender’s Office that are open, which is 81.2 per public defender, and there are five of those. That doesn’t mean that anyone is working harder than anyone else, it’s that we have a significant deviation from their workload and hours.”

Miller said COVID-19 closures have created havoc, delaying cases due to court shutdowns.

“We have 125 cases set for jury trial,” he said. “We had 14 jury trials in 2014, more than one per month which is pretty good for a county this size. At that rate, assuming there are no more cases that are set for jury trial, it would take over 10 years to solve that backlog. In 2020, we received 3,540 referrals.” A referral is a report from law enforcement requesting criminal charges.

Miller said 82% of all referrals received from law enforcement resulted in criminal charges in a new case filing.

“Two thousand, five hundred and forty seven were resolved or disposed; they reached a resolution of a guilty plea or guilty verdict.”

Coupled with the COVID-19 issue, Miller said the number of staff is too small to properly handle the caseload.

“We are filing more cases each year than we are moving them,” he said. “That’s what is creating the problem we have. We are allotted 17 employees. From 2019 to now, there have been five hourly positions that we’ve replaced. There is a cost of training new employees that don’t end up staying. In six months, it costs about $10,000 to teach people to do the job and be comfortable with it. When you have 3,600 cases, that’s a lot to pile on somebody brand new.”

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According to Miller, the resulting delays create other problems. “The longer a case goes on, the less likely the victims want to continue to participate. It’s harder to find the witnesses, sometimes the witnesses die or relocate,” he said.

Miller offered two proposals to help the prosecutor’s office.

“The first proposal we have is for part-time staffing,” he said. “We propose to hire two attorneys part-time as special prosecutors, and one legal secretary part-time without benefits. The second proposal we have is for a 40-hour work week. The county is a hybrid. Some of the offices work 35 hour weeks and some 40. This is a significant difference in the work that you can accomplish in that time.”

Gilliam then told the commission about the people she was thinking of hiring for part-time positions, and why it was difficult finding staff for prosecutor’s positions.

“The problem I’m facing with hiring and replacing these two positions is that most of the attorneys that are interested in working in a prosecutor’s office are going to St. Louis County, St. Charles County or St. Louis City,” she said. They’re not wanting to drive here because most of them don’t live here. The attorneys that live in St. Francois County, they are engaged in work somewhere else, their own firm or for someone else.

“It’s a lot of work, it’s a lot of pressure, because if something goes wrong or something’s not done, it could result in an acquittal of a very bad person who could go out and hurt the community.”

Gilliam addressed the reasons behind wanting a uniform, 40-hour work week. “It doesn’t make any sense to only be 35-hour weeks. The courthouse is open 8 a.m.-5 p.m. The courts are scheduled at 8 a.m. and do go to 5 p.m. Court Clerks are 8 a.m.-5 p.m. Our phones are ringing non-stop, because there’s nobody there to answer them.”

Asked if Supreme Court rulings on bail bond issues in 2019 affected the case load, Gilliam affirmed it caused her office significant problems.

“[Miller] did the statistics on how many defendants have more than one case pending, in the past they would have one or two cases pending, and now they have four or more,” she said. “We can’t always say exactly why, and I don’t want the judges to think I am throwing them under the bus, but it is a factor.”

After the meeting, Gilliam pressed the staffing issue. St. Francois County, with an estimated population of 67,215, has half the prosecutors on staff as Cape Girardeau County with an estimated population of 75,990.

“It’s sheer volume,” she said. “When you have 450 cases assigned to you and 100 are serious felonies, that’s stressful. My own experience when I was in the City of St. Louis, the most cases I ever had at one time was 200.”

Mark Marberry is a reporter for the Farmington Press and Daily Journal. He can be reached at 573-518-3629, or at mmarberry@farmingtonpressonline.com

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