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Public defenders represent 80% to 90% of criminal defendants in Minnesota. ( image)

Panel advances measure to fund public defenders

The Minnesota House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee heard testimony Jan. 10 from the Board of Public Defense, which hopes the full House of Representatives will pass HF 90 to fully fund public defenders.

While the Board has been historically underfunded, 2022 was the year when the exasperation boiled over. In March 2022, public defense lawyers and staff authorized a strike. They were able to reach to a deal to avert the strike. Then, Public Defender Bill Ward received a “no confidence” vote from the union. They are now hopeful that $25 million will be appropriated to the board in 2023, with $50 million in 2024 and 2025.

Public defenders represent 80% to 90% of criminal defendants in Minnesota.

Kevin Kajer, chief administrator of the Board of Public Defense, testified,  “We are the largest user of the court system.”

The board was involved in 126,000 cases in 2022 on the district court level. A third were misdemeanor, a third were gross misdemeanor, and roughly 20% were felony cases. Some 1,300 appellate files were opened by the appellate office.

While Kajer testified that there was a dip in the cases with the COVID-19 pandemic, he said that those numbers are going back up. There is a 9,000 case backlog across the state, Kajer said.

As client need has increased, number of available lawyers has gone down.

“We have been hit by the Great Resignation,” Kajer said.

In 2022, the board lost 15% of its staff to resignation. At last count, Kajer said, the board had 65 attorney positions across the state that were vacant, which represents about 12-13% of total staffing. Applications are also down 50-75%.

“That is pretty consistent with other systems across the country,” Kajer said.

Bill Ward, Minnesota State Public Defender, said that the job itself requires a unique skill set and disposition.

“We look for people who have the desire to do the work that we do, which is not everyone,” he said.

However, pay was a major factor, and neither Ward nor Kajer sees increased applicants or retention occurring until compensation improves.

“We also have a situation of recruiting retention,” Ward said. “People don’t want to work for us right now because the pay is too low.”

Ward said that there was no parity with the county attorney’s offices across Minnesota.

Ward also cited poor working conditions as a reason for poor retention.

“The word ‘trauma’ is not something like to describe what is happening to my staff. But that’s exactly the traumatic effect that’s occurring due to the pressures of working on these cases,” Ward said.

Brian Aldes, secretary-treasurer and principal officer of Teamsters Local 320, said public defenders were citing stress over the inability to do their jobs.

“They are increasingly concerned that by forcing them as is required by the Constitution into these extreme and unmanageable working conditions, that there is the potential to violate a defendant’s constitutional right,” Aldes said.

Supporters of increased funding also said underfunding was affecting clients.

“We don’t have enough adequate staff,” Ward said. “Our numbers are not nearly what they need to be to represent our clients in the way that all of you should demand on behalf of our citizens.

“We have clients who come to us in tears, with fear and anger due to how they’re being treated by the court system. They feel like they’re getting the shaft by us because we don’t have the time, energy, or ability to do what we should be doing on their behalf.”

Beyond aiding individuals in need, supporters say that fully funding the board will bolster social justice reforms that the state has made a priority in the wake of the George Floyd killing.

“Minnesota’s criminal justice system cannot meet its needed reforms until the state actively supports its essential Board of Public Defense employees with an adequate budget that providers for proper staffing, competitive pay, manageable caseloads, and critical resources,” Aldes said.

With more police officers wearing body cameras, even a basic traffic stop may have a few hours of video, which then needs to be reviewed.

Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, said, “I just want to be on the record as supporting this. This is long overdue and this is a constitutionally mandated issue and we need to fund it.”

There were some reservations. Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, expressed concerns about people using public defender’s services when they didn’t need them, claiming it had happened somewhat often in his county.

Ward disputed that. “Ninety-nine percent of the folks we represent absolutely are indigent and deserve representation,” he said.

“I really encourage you to think about if your son, or daughter, or uncle or cousin, were in trouble, would you want us to represent them? You should. But should you know in the state we are in and have been in for the past two decades?” Ward said before the measure went to a voice vote.

HF 90 was approved by the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee. It will go to the House Ways and Means Committee next.

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