Scales of justice

To accommodate a budget shortfall of $3.5 million, the State Office of the Public Defender will no longer be contracting cases with local attorneys. 

Instead, the office will hire a total of 62 attorneys in offices across the state to handle cases previously assigned to outside counsel, OPD Chief Administrator Scott Cruse said Monday. 

This plan was projected to save the office $2.2 million in fiscal year 2017, according to the OPD's mitigation plan

On Wednesday, Interim Director of the Billings' office Doug Day said the office would no longer contract out cases to local lawyers. 

Since the state office was created in 2006, the state public defender office has contracted out cases that could not be handled by the local offices, whether because of too many cases or conflicts within the office. On average, OPD paid these attorneys about $62 an hour for their work, Day said. 

Now, instead of contracting cases, the public defender office will be employing attorneys part time to handle the cases. These attorneys will be eligible to the same state benefits as a full-time employee, but will be paid between $37 and $48 hourly, Cruse said. 

The main difference between these and other full-time employees is that the modified positions will not be permanent, Cruse said. If the 62 attorneys are not enough to cover all the cases, then the public defender commission will revisit the plan, Cruse said. 

In most Eastern Montana public defender offices, this change in hiring contract attorneys will apply only to lower court cases. Contract attorneys will no longer be used for felony cases in five regional offices: Kalispell, Missoula, Great Falls, Helena and Billings. 

Billings lawyer and Public Defender Commission member Mark Parker said the commission struggled over how to reduce costs and how to fulfill the mission of representing people who cannot pay for an attorney. This measure was the best way to do that, Parker said.

"I don't see any drawbacks," Parker said. "I really don't. Any change will generate noise and discontent."

Contract attorneys at the Wednesday meeting with Day voiced concerns over whether or not they will be able to support their private practices without the contract cases the OPD provides.

The hope is the part-time positions will allow the contract attorneys to get benefits and maintain their private practices, Cruse said. 

Montana American Civil Liberties Union Legal Director Jim Taylor said if supplemental funding for the OPD is not approved by the 2017 Montana Legislature, the OPD's office will "crash."  

OPD isn't the only part of the criminal justice system facing a shortfall, Taylor said. He noted the findings of the Legislative Audit Division, which said that a rising adult inmate population created the need for additional housing, which the DOC found at two youth facilities.

Costs in all aspects of the criminal justice system will continue to rise if the State of Montana continues to incarcerate more and more people, Taylor said. 

A lawsuit filed by the ACLU in 2002 sought reform of the state’s public defense system. The lawsuit was settled when legislation was passed in 2005, creating a statewide public defense system. The ACLU continued to monitor the funding and resources given to the Office of the State Public Defender. 

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Justice reporter for The Billings Gazette.