Minnesota public defenders 'drowning' in cases, seek more funding

Minnesota public defenders are quitting at rates not seen in years.

Minnesota public defenders are quitting at rates not seen in years, and their colleagues describe a cascading workload that is forcing their clients to sit in jail for longer periods.

The Board of Public Defense is seeking $50 million through a supplemental budget request to state lawmakers, of which $29 million would fund 250 new hires, while $21 million would boost salaries. 

A key House lawmaker said she would push funding during the 2022 legislative session.

"I, like many of my colleagues, am drowning. The case loads are brutal and so is the workload," Brenda Lightbody, an assistant public defender in Dakota County, told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. "Unhappy and stressed and demoralized public defenders cannot properly serve our clients. And be clear -- we want to serve our clients."

Public defenders handle more than 150,000 cases a year for low-income people who are accused of crimes and cannot afford a private attorney.

Public defenders have voiced complaints about low pay for years, though the pandemic has intensified the staffing woes. The starting salary is $65,000, compared with a salary of nearly $70,000 in a prosecutor's office, according to Board of Public Defense data. Because of the staffing shortage, the board has been hiring contract attorneys to handle some cases.

In 2021, 56 public defenders resigned, the highest quit rate in at least several years. Few people are applying for the open positions. The number of applications plummeted during the last months of 2021 compared with previous years, according to Board of Public Defense data.

Benchmarked against national standards, Minnesota has 75 percent of the attorney staffing and 60 percent of support staffing needed to handle current caseloads, the board's data indicate.

"The morale is the lowest I've seen it in my 10 years," said Ginny Barron, an assistant public defender in southwest Minnesota. Barron said her managers have encouraged public defenders not to review all potential evidence and to plead their cases to reduce the workload.

State Public Defender Bill Ward did not address those concerns during the hearing.

The staffing crunch is also hitting Civil Legal Services, which represents low-income people in civil cases like evictions. About 32 percent of its staff have left over the past two years, administrators said. 

Civil Legal Services is asking lawmakers for $4.3 million to increase the average attorney salary to $65,000 from the current $60,335.

State Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, the House Judiciary chairwoman, said she would propose a funding increase during the session that starts Jan. 31. The state budget surplus, projected at $7.7 billion, can support it, she said.

"I fully expect we will be seeking supplemental budget items this year given the surplus and everything else that is going on and -- obviously, what we heard today – the need that is there," Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, said at the end of Tuesday's hearing.