Gazette opinion: Region’s growth makes case for more defenders

2014-04-20T00:00:00Z Gazette opinion: Region’s growth makes case for more defenders The Billings Gazette
April 20, 2014 12:00 am

Add the Montana Public Defender Office to the long list of private businesses and government agencies struggling to hire workers for Bakken boom towns.

More indigent people are being charged with crimes in the Bakken area and require a public defender, Montana Chief Public Defender William Hooks said in a telephone interview.

The 2013 Legislature approved eight new attorneys for the Montana Public Defender Office, effectively reducing the staff by three attorneys who had been hired on a temporary basis.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s budget had proposed 37 new positions.

The office needed 77, according to Richard “Fritz” Gillespie, the Great Falls attorney who chairs the Public Defender Commission.

Since then, the defenders’ workload has grown. Defenders were assigned 1,068 more new cases statewide in fiscal 2013 than they were in 2012. January projections for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, show that the overall number of new cases will stay about the same as last year, but the number of District Court assignments (including felonies and civil child neglect and abuse cases) is expected to increase by 200.

Lack of lawyers

“The increase is somewhat uniform in other areas of the state, but we are receiving more demand for our services in the Bakken and we don’t have the lawyers to cover,” Gillespie said in a recent telephone interview.

Attorneys who previously worked on contract with the defender office are busy doing other work that pays much better than the $62 per hour the defender’s office pays.

So the office has been sending contract attorneys from Billings to Eastern Montana. That has created problems for the Billings office, which doesn’t have enough contract attorneys to serve Montana’s busiest judicial district along with the oil patch.

Those long-distance assignments are hard on the budget; the attorneys must be paid for their travel time and mileage in addition to their time actually working on the case.

Gillespie estimated that a brand-new associate in an established Billings law practice would be earning $125 to $150 an hour. So the defender office is paying less than half of what a new Billings lawyer could bill her private pay clients.

“One of the difficulties is that costs of rent and services are increasing in Eastern Montana. If we were to hire lawyers, where would they live?” Gillespie said.

Overloaded staff

Staff attorneys in Billings are overloaded, Hooks said.

“It’s getting worse and worse,” Hooks said. “The number of filings keeps going up and up and the number of attorneys doesn’t.”

The defender office received a temporary reprieve from Gov. Steve Bullock who allocated $625,000 from his office’s appropriation in Senate Bill 410, according to his spokesman, Mike Wessler.

Hooks said the governor’s allocation allowed the defender office to add 19 temporary positions, including two attorneys and one support staffer in Billings.

Harry Freebourn, administrative director for the defender office, said the $625,000 will fund the temporary positions only through June 30. The Public Defender Commission has not yet asked the governor for funding for the next fiscal year. The positions would still end with the biennium unless the 2015 Legislature approves funding.

The Public Defender Commission needs to make its case to lawmakers in clear, concise presentations that we non-lawyers can easily grasp. The commission must show lawmakers the workload data that support the budget request. Lawmakers must base their appropriations on what is needed.

Another lawsuit?

The State Public Defender Office was created by the Legislature after the state was sued because some counties had failed to provide adequate indigent defense. If the state fails to provide adequate defense, another lawsuit is certain.

Defenders serve not just their clients, but the entire state justice system. County attorneys and judges can’t move cases forward on a timely basis if public defenders are unavailable or overloaded. Defendants who receive ineffective counsel can appeal. Ultimately, doing things the right way, the first time is the best, least-cost strategy.

Along with better roads and increased law enforcement, the growing regions of Billings and Eastern Montana need more public defenders.

Copyright 2015 The Billings Gazette. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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