State inaction jeopardizes justice system, public defenders say

Failure to adequately fund public defense services could lead to a mass exodus of employees and a potential work stoppage, public defenders warned Monday. “Simply put, the public defense system is at a breaking point,” said Brian Aldes, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 320, the union representing about 650 employees of the Board of Public Defense.

At a news conference, Aldes was joined by Brad Michael, an investigator in the 4th Judicial District (Hennepin County); Andrea Barts, state assistant public defender in the Appellate Office; and Jill Nitke, investigator in the 10th Judicial District (Anoka, Chisago, Isanti, Kanabec, Pine, Sherburne, Washington and Wright Counties).

“We have several attorneys who are working two jobs just to pay the bills,” Michael said. “That’s not good for the clients. That’s not good for anyone.”

The Board of Public Defense requested an additional $17.476 million to its budget for 19 new assistant public defenders, seven new dispositional advisors to assist clients with mental health issues and 11 new legal specialists. The request was designed to bring attorney staffing levels to 75 percent of existing state and national standards.

Instead, lawmakers are considering no increase or possibly cuts to fund other priorities, such as tax breaks. With the Legislature required to adjourn by midnight Monday, the public safety funding – like appropriations for many other needs such as education and transportation – is mired in politics.

The issue of public defender staffing should be nonpartisan, the workers said.

Under the Minnesota Constitution, everyone accused of a crime has the right to be represented in court, noted Nitke. “If we’re not adequately funded, the constitutional rights [of the accused] are being violated.”

It’s not unusual for a public defender to be representing 40 defendants in one court session, she said. The offenses range from misdemeanors to felonies.

In 2010, the Legislative Auditor issued a report stating, “High public defender workloads have created significant challenges for Minnesota’s criminal justice system.”

The challenges include the inability to handle cases in a timely manner, more overcrowded jails, a decline in the quality of fact-finding as witnesses become unavailable due to delays and increased strain on the entire justice system.

More recently, State Supreme Court Justice Lorie Gildea said the Legislature is “jeopardizing public safety” with underfunding the state justice system.
The high workload and low pay – public defender salaries lag more than 20 percent behind those of other public attorneys – has led to many people leaving for better-paying jobs. Local 320 hopes to address the pay issue in contract negotiations, but that will be difficult if the Board of Public Defense does not receive more funding.

“The people I represent in Hennepin County are fed up,” said Michael. “They’ve had enough.”

Workers took pay freezes or very small increases when the state was in financial trouble, he noted. They expect more now that the state budget is projected to have a $1.65 billion surplus.

While no one wants to strike, a walkout is possible.

“Without us in the system, it’s going to come to a screeching halt,” said Nitke. “And that’s not OK.”

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