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Stressed public defenders ask lawmakers for help

A heavier workload and higher turnover have worsened in the pandemic, making it hard to deliver true justice to Minnesota's lower-income defendants.

ST PAUL, Minn. — The basic right to equal justice, regardless of financial means, is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The right to a court-appointed attorney has been part of the Miranda warning for decades.

But some public defenders in Minnesota say their clients aren't getting a fair shake, due to high staff turnover and caseloads that exceed national standards. Those who testified at a Minnesota House committee hearing Tuesday said the pandemic has made things even worse in that regard.

"My clients are the ones who suffer when I cannot adequately do my job," Cara Gilbert, an assistant public defender in Ramsey County, told members of the House Judiciary Committee.

"They suffer because I don’t have the time to build relationships with them, and thoroughly read, watch, research and litigate their cases."

Gilbert said she works mainly with juvenile clients, so gaining trust is even tougher given the time constraints public defenders face as they work through a backlog of cases and deal with staff turnover.

"My clients, our most vulnerable citizens, primarily children of color, bear the brunt and the real cost. If you don’t pay competitively you can’t fill positions and pay attorneys."

The goal of state policy is to limit case load to 400 "case units" per year, which roughly translates as 400 misdemeanor cases, 250 to 300 gross misdemeanor cases, 100-150 felony cases, 175 juvenile crime cases and 80 child welfare cases.

Turnover and lack of competitive pay has made it difficult to stay within those caseload targets. 

Gilbert said two young prosecutors interviewed for public defense jobs last year but chose to take offers instead from the Ramsey County Attorney's Office because they could earn more as rookie prosecutors.

She said she's been a public defender for seven years, after spending 20 years as a special education teacher, and still makes less than new assistant county attorneys.

Kevin Kajer, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense Chief Administrator, told lawmakers that 56 public defenders quit in 2021, which far exceeded resignations from previous years. Some went to private sector jobs, and others went to public entities that could offer better pay or more manageable workloads.

State Public Defender William Ward told lawmakers he'd need to hire 149 more attorneys and 112 more supporting staff to meet the national standards for public defender caseloads. And he pointed out those standards were developed before the advent of body cameras, cyber forensics and smart phones, which all add to the body of evidence prosecutors can use to build their cases.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, the Roseville Democrat who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, said she expects to seek supplemental budget items for public defenders and for legal aid organizations that help indigent clients in civil cases such as landlord-tenant disputes.

The public defenders who testified Tuesday said pay is one issue that directly affects recruitment efforts and in turn, contributes to lower staff morale. 

Ginny Barron, who has worked 10 years as an assistant public defender in the 15th District of Southwest Minnesota, said there's a huge gap between what new public defenders and prosecutors make.

"In my district alone a new attorney coming in straight off out of law school will be paid over $20,000 more to work for the Blue Earth County prosecutor’s office than they would working for the Board of Public Defense."

Barron said she feels pressured to clear the backlog of cases, and clients also feel pressured to plead guilty to crimes just so they can go home, rather than working to negotiate a lesser charge or be cleared of wrongdoing.

"We don't have the time necessary to read through all the evidence in our case. We don’t have the time to talk to our clients. We don’t have time to meet with our clients in jail sufficiently," Barron explained.

"Clients are given sometimes just mere minutes to decide if they want to go back home with their family or want to enforce their rights."

Brenda Lightbody, a public defender in Dakota County for the past 20 years, said she and her fellow attorneys are dedicated to putting their clients' rights first, sometimes even over their own wellbeing and mental health. She said they put in many uncompensated hours to try to help their indigent clients.

"We are part social worker, part therapist, part friend, part parent, part magician, and part lawyer," Lightbody remarked.

"We visit clients in jail. We do Zoom hearings. We appear in person in court. We do trials. We answer questions. We are Jacks and Jills of all trades. And yet, we are not adequately compensated for that knowledge and experience."

She said the pandemic has exacerbated the challenges many lower income clients are facing, at the same time public defenders are being asked to devote less time to each case.

"We’re frustrated and burned out. We feel unsupported by our own agency and the judicial system in general."

The Judiciary Committee Tuesday also heard from legal aid organizations who are facing some of the same turnover, pay and retention issues as public defenders.

Legal aid lawyers work with lower income clients on civil cases such as tenant-landlord disputes. Members of Minnesota Civil Legal Services, a coalition of legal aid programs across the state, said they're still forced to turn away about 55% of those who seek aid.

But the coalition did have some good news for lawmakers.

They used part of the $2 million in CARES Act grant to create a statewide network of self-service legal kiosks. Some of those kiosks are a portal to apply online for legal aid, or look up court information. Other kiosks allow clients to make court appearances or speak to their lawyers via Zoom.

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