Montana News

Mar 25, 2013 11:23 AM by Melissa Anderson - MTN News

Strains showing in Montana public defenders system

HELENA - Montana's Public Defender system is nearing crisis levels in some parts of the state, with court appointed attorneys telling legislators that they're underpaid and overworked. They say they may not be able to take on more cases until something is done.

The design of the state public defenders system, which started in Montana eight years ago, was meant to give legal council to those who couldn't afford it. But because the system has never been fully funded as needed by the state, public defense attorneys say they are underpaid and overworked.

"We are at a point where we can no longer take cases." said Public Defenders Commission Chair Fritz Gillespie.

Public defense turnover is bogging down the entire court system in Lewis & Clark County.

"The office of public defender cannot rapidly get to their clients.." said Lewis & Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher.

"They simply don't have enough time to do those things that lawyers should do to provide effective assistance of council." said Gillespie.

So much in fact, that they are having to be replaced.

"In the last 18 months, seven of those 11 attorneys have turned over." said Gillespie.

The need for court appointed defense attorneys is said to be growing at a 4% rate in Montana.

Civil rights supporters say just because people can't afford attorneys shouldn't mean they aren't offered a timely and equal defense.

"Now, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight-out-of 10 who are brought before the court don't have the resources to defend themselves." said MT ACLU Executive Director Scott Crichton.
The legislature concedes that public defenders are underpaid.

"One of the real problems is the salaries. The public defenders are basically at 60% of market." said Chair of the public safety committee subcommittee Steve Gibson.

But so far they aren't willing to give into the demands of Governor Steve Bullock, who would like to see at least 37 more full-time attorneys on the payroll.

"We gave them close to $3 million for salaries, we did give them some FTE's, but again I just don't believe the FTE is the total answer." said Republican Representative Gibson.

The average case load for a public defender is said to be around 120 cases.

"Nobody in private practice would ever think that they could responsibly represent anybody if they took on that kind of caseload." said Crichton.

"Without additional attorneys, this system is going to fail." concluded Gillespie.

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