Raises and increased staff not enough to stop case overload for public defenders

Dec 2, 2013

The state’s Chief Public Defender says workloads for public defense attorneys have improved due to financial help from the Montana Legislature. However, Bill Hooks said his office still needs more help.

The 2013 Legislature gave the public defender’s office *$1.2 million in new money for employee raises, which Hooks said has been very helpful.

"We were able to bring our attorney salaries more in line with what our colleagues were getting in other courts throughout the state,” Hooks said. “So I think that was a significant improvement and we're very appreciative of that.”

The legislature appropriated money to help pay for private contract attorneys, which the office uses in certain regions of the state where there aren’t enough full-time attorneys to represent everyone.

Funding for eight full-time positions was also authorized by lawmakers. That money was used to make some temporary, part-time, positions permanent. Governor Steve Bullock’s office had requested 37 new full-time positions.

Caseload issues still remain a problem at the office. Hooks said the number of cases continues to rise and not just in criminal court. He said Montana’s office deals with "non-traditional" public defender work in civil courts, like dependent neglect cases, youth court cases and guardianship disputes. He said most of the state’s public defense attorneys meet the definition of being overworked on any given day.

"We either need to halt the case increases or bolster our ability to meet that increase with people," Hooks said.

The public defender’s office is working on both of those goals right now. The office is appealing a Helena Judge’s recent denial of a request for authority to stop accepting cases until the office could get caught up. Hooks also said the office will again be asking for staffing help from the 2015 Legislature.

Public defense was brought under state control in 2006. It was previously managed by county governments.

*An earlier version of this story incorrectly said $5 million.