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.

“I think it’s in trouble but I think it’s a lot better off than it was a year ago,” said Victor Republican Senator Jim Shockley.

He chairs the Law and Justice Interim Committee—which oversees the Public Defender’s Office. He says the office has been making great strides at the management level compared to where it was before.

“They didn’t know how they were spending their money, they weren’t keeping track of time properly on their attorneys. The managers at regional levels were not supervising properly,” Shockley said.

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.

Thompson Falls Republican Senator Greg Hinkle calls the current situation at the Public Defender’s Office unacceptable.

“And I think the funding should be adequately increased to the public defenders office and our judicial system. So we may just need to make some cuts in another place and put the money over there,” Hinkle said.

Several Republicans on the committee also called for the Public Defender’s Office to start charging a small fee to those using the service as a way to raise funds—say $10 or $20.

The ACLU’s Niki Zupanic rejects that idea—saying the reason these people are using the Public Defender system is they don’t have the money for attorney’s fees.