3 factors that make hiring a lawyer advisable in Missouri criminal cases

People accused of crimes may benefit from retaining private counsel given the risk of wrongful convictions, harsh sentencing terms and lasting consequences.

People who have been accused of crimes in St. Louis have the legal right to work with a court-appointed public defender. Unfortunately, in recent years, reports have surfaced that Missouri may face a shortage of these professionals. Public defenders in the state often face a heavy workload of up to four cases per week, according to The Kansas City Star. This may have adverse effects on the accused and the final outcomes of their cases.

Despite this troubling trend, some accused individuals may question the necessity of retaining a private criminal defense attorney. However, private representation can be advisable for most individuals in light of the serious risks that come with criminal charges, including the following three dangers.

1. Possibility of wrongful conviction

People who have been wrongly accused may think they don't need to hire a private attorney to prove their innocence. However, local and national data shows that wrongful conviction is a threat even in cases involving highly serious allegations, including sex crimes and violent criminal offenses. As The Innocence Project explains, many factors that are beyond an individual's control can contribute to these convictions, including:

  • Errors on the part of eyewitnesses, whose memories can be unreliable
  • Misconduct by law enforcement authorities or forensic specialists
  • Testimony from informants, who may have incentive to give false information

Here in Missouri, over 40 wrongfully convicted individuals have been exonerated to date, per the National Registry of Exonerations. However, the overall number of wrongful convictions that have occurred here is likely much higher. Fortunately, working with an attorney with relevant experience and adequate time to dedicate to a case may help a person reduce the risk of this outcome.

2. High state incarceration rates

A recent Pew study indicates that, next to other states, Missouri has above-average rates of incarceration relative to its crime rates. The Columbia Tribune reports that this study evaluated the number of crimes that occur in each state, the severity of the crimes and the number of people who are incarcerated for over 12 months. According to the analysis, in 2013, only 16 states had higher rates of incarceration than Missouri.

This finding suggests that people in Missouri can suffer harsher consequences for a given criminal conviction than people in most states would. This makes obtaining the most effective legal counsel available advisable for most people who face criminal charges in the state.

3. Potential lingering consequences

Hiring a private attorney can also be advisable due to the long-term consequences of a conviction. Even if a conviction doesn't result in prolonged periods of incarceration, it can have many adverse impacts. People with criminal records may have greater difficulty securing employment in certain fields, finding housing and qualifying for federal assistance, for example. Furthermore, sealing or expunging a criminal record can be a challenging process.

Missouri has removed questions about criminal history from employment applications for state positions and heard proposals to do the same for private jobs, according to the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch. Supporters hope this measure will address the high rate of unemployment among parolees in the state, which was 44 percent in 2015. Still, even with this initiative, people with criminal records may face difficulty finding jobs elsewhere and various other hurdles.

Choosing the right representative

Given all of these risks, people accused of crimes should at least consider consulting with a few prospective attorneys before ruling out the option of retaining private counsel. Doing so may help a person assess whether hiring an attorney is a beneficial choice, given the nature of the criminal charges and the potential consequences of a conviction.