It’s been a cliché forever to say public defenders are overworked and underpaid.
Now, the public defender system is in crisis and the state is not meeting its constitutional duty to provide free public defense lawyers for indigent people, says Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville).
She sponsors HF90 that would appropriate $25 million in fiscal year 2023 for the Board of Public Defense to hire more public defense attorneys and boost salaries, something she said is necessary to begin to undo decades of understaffing.
Adequately funding the board is key to fulfilling a fundamental aspect of our country’s criminal justice system, Becker-Finn said. “If you are facing criminal charges, you are provided an attorney if you cannot afford one. We don’t want justice to depend on your ability to pay.”
The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee approved the bill Tuesday on a voice vote and sent it to the House Ways and Means Committee.
William Ward, the state’s chief public defender, said caseloads are so severe that public defenders cannot do their jobs properly, leading to job burnout, high turnover rates, and a chronic inability to hire replacements.
“We have been hit by the great resignation,” said Kevin Kajer, chief administrator of the Board of Public Defense.
Applications are down 50% to 75%, he said, adding that number will not likely change without higher pay for public defenders.
In a presentation, Ward noted the pandemic has exacerbated the crisis because remote hearings can take up to three times as long to conduct. That has led to a backlog of more than 9,000 felony and gross misdemeanor cases across the state.
Clearing that backload cannot be done in a timely manner without the proposed increase in resources, Ward said.
The bill would also ramp up the amount appropriated to the Board of Public Defense in upcoming years, specifying an appropriation of $50 million in fiscal year 2024 and $50 million fiscal year 2025.
Caseloads are much more time-consuming now than ever, said Cara Gilbert, a public defender in Ramsey County.
With more law enforcement personnel wearing body cameras, she said even a simple traffic stop can produce three to four hours of video; a felony case may yield hundreds of hours.
Reviewing all such video evidence is impossible under current caseloads, she said, and that means clients represented by public defenders do not get the justice they deserve.