There is a good read today in the Pioneer Press on the state of the state’s public defenders.
Much of the information in Frederick Melo’s story is not new, but it bears repeating. The public defenders across Minnesota are overworked and understaffed. Defenders in the 3rd District filed a union grievance last spring in protest of the excessive caseloads and some defenders have even started to openly question if they are providing adequate representation to their clients. Defenders in the 3rd recently took an anonymous survey and some of the results are eye opening:
• All said they had put a client on the witness stand with no or little preparation, and most said their cases suffered as a result.
• With little time to prepare, most of the public defenders said they had discouraged clients from demanding their right to a speedy trial.
• Several attorneys said they typically returned less than half their clients’ calls and letters.
In the story, one defender said she recently took the unusual step of encouraging her client to appeal his guilty conviction on the grounds that his public defender wasn’t prepared. Another public defender got in trouble for missing a court appearance, but the citation was dismissed after an investigation found that the reason he missed the appearance was because he was scheduled to be in two courtrooms, in two different counties, at the same time.
As far as the solutions, there aren’t many. After years of layoffs and budget cuts the public defenders are way understaffed. As a result, the criminal justice system has ground to a halt. Trials are scheduled more than a year in advance because the defenders are that busy. Many defenders have said the courts have to stop assigning public defenders to low level crimes and some have even suggested decriminalizing some drug crimes as a way to catch up. The easiest solution would be to hire more defenders and with the abysmal job market for recent grads that would be easy to do. But the problem is there is no money. The state is in debt and doesn’t have enough money to keep some courthouse public service counters open 40 hours a week, let alone hire a batch of new public defenders.
A woman called our office today and left a voice mail in response to the story in the Pioneer Press. “If Koua Fong Lee had a public defender would he still be in jail?” she asked.
It’s a good question and my bet is the answer is yes. The defenders don’t have the time or the resources to investigate a case like Lee’s. And it doesn’t look like things will be changing any time soon.