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Judiciary committee hears plea from public defenders, legal aid lawyers for more funding

Too much work and not enough pay were a common theme Tuesday as representatives of Minnesota’s public defense and civil legal aid attorneys spoke before the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee during an informational hearing.

Both groups discussed the challenges they face working to properly represent low-income clients in criminal and civil court cases while also explaining their need for additional state funding.

Legal aid attorneys, who represent clients in non-criminal legal matters, receive an annual starting salary that is thousands of dollars less than colleagues in the private sector. Public defenders also make less money and their workloads are typically much heavier than private criminal attorneys.

Dori Rapaport, executive director of Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, said civil legal services lawyers would like an additional $4.3 million in fiscal year 2023 to help address the “salary crisis” they have been dealing with for some time.

Dori Rapaport, executive director of Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, testifies before the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee during a remote hearing Jan. 11. (Screenshot via House Public Information Services webcast)

Thirty-two percent of CLS staff in the last two years have quit, which Rapaport said is “not a sustainable number” for the organization going forward. That turnover is one of the reasons that, for every 100 Minnesotans who seek out civil legal services and qualify for help, 55% are turned away because there aren’t resources to help them.

“This $4.3 million will allow us to start our staff attorneys at, on average, $65,000, and that’s absolutely where we need to be if we’re going to continue to keep staff,” Rapaport said.

The additional money would allow CLS to increase the average starting salary for staff attorneys by nearly $10,000 in 2022.

Public defenders face many of the same problems.

“You have been reading about this in papers and online about ‘the great resignation,’ and we’re not immune from that,” Kevin Kajer, chief administrator of the Board of Public Defense, told members. “The two big issues that folks cite when they are leaving are workloads and salary.”

Kajer said turnover has taken its toll on public defenders, and that about 40% of staff lawyers and 25% of support staff have been hired in the last three years.

William Ward, the state’s chief public defender, said Minnesota would need an additional 149 attorneys and more than 100 support staff to meet the national standards for public defender weighted caseloads.

“That would be an additional $29 million just to get to the national standard in [number of] positions,” Ward said, adding that the standards aren’t even good enough.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL-Roseville), who chairs the committee, said she expects “seeking supplemental budget items this year given the [the state’s budget] surplus … and, obviously what we heard today, the need that is going on.”

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