State Public Defender’s Office says it’s short on resources
The State Public Defender’s Office continues to tell state lawmakers it needs more money. A legislative committee heard a report today outlining how the office is short on resources. The public defenders will have to compete with many other requests for a piece of the state’s projected budget surplus.
Before the State Public Defender’s Office was created, people unable to afford their own defense received help at the County level.
The Montana chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sued saying the county-controlled method was inconsistent—that some counties were not providing adequate public defense. So the Legislature created the State Office. It has been operating since 2006.
“But from day one the state has refused to put forward the money that’s necessary to make that commitment meaningful,” said ACLU Public Policy Director Niki Zupanic.
Both the ACLU and American University have released reports saying the state office is not providing adequate services either. Now, the Public Defender’s Office itself has released a response to those reports that agrees in many ways.
“We are at a point where our ability to perform the mission of providing affective assistance of council becomes more and more in doubt because of lack of resources,” said the Chair of the State Public Defender Commission, Fritz Gillespie.
He says public defenders make far less than their peers in private practice—and they face unreasonable workloads. As an example, he says handling 400 misdemeanor cases a year is considered a national standard for a public defender. He then points to one Montana public defender who within six months had 260 active cases at once.
The ACLU’s Niki Zupanic agrees better management has led to a more efficient office. But she says that doesn’t entirely get to the heart of the matter—the caseloads are still going up and the funding is not keeping pace.
“The state needs to think again about the wisdom of trying to low-ball this office of trying to make this office either decrease services or try to do more with less. It’s not working, and it’s time for the state to match the commitment it’s made in creating this office with the dollars necessary to meet that constitutional obligation,” she said.
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– Clients whose cases were harmed by negligent or substandard representation. One client sat in jail for 30 days before bailing out, without help from his public defender, and then was unable to get a response from her about his court date. When he went to the courthouse to inquire, he was told that neither he nor his attorney showed up for a hearing, and he was arrested.
Another client with a drinking problem said his defender had recommended he start serving a 10-year sentence, but the client, on his own, worked out a treatment plan with the judge and was able to avoid prison.
Jim Taylor, a Missoula attorney who resigned from the Public Defender Commission in January, said the same type of problems chronicled in the ACLU report surfaced three years ago and led to a review of the system by American University.
The AU report also listed those problems, and the current leadership of the system has largely failed to address them, he said in his Jan. 11 resignation letter to Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
The Missoulian State Bureau spoke with several current and some former employees of the office. None wanted to be identified by name, for fear of jeopardizing their employment. But they described a work environment that has justifiably driven out many of their former co-workers. Here is a sample:
Several employees talked about their “crushing caseloads.” Several said they have or had so many clients, they feel they are constantly on the verge of committing legal malpractice. Many spoke of having no mentoring, no help when they need it, which is a “huge issue,” one lawyer said, because so much of the legal staff are fairly recent law school grads.
- Montana has a very high incarceration rate and County Attorneys plan on that number rising higher. With the Public Defenders office not having the funds that is needed nor enough help that is needed, no wonder they have to plea bargain so much. County Attorneys pretty well have everything tied up neatly. No wonder we’ve seen a County Attorney and Probation Officer laughing and looking at the individual and family after they have sentenced someone.