Thursday, August 19, 2010

A victory for public defenders, maybe

From the Pioneer Press:

A Steele County judge has ruled that public defenders in the 3rd Judicial District may not drop 46 criminal defense cases they say they're too short-staffed to handle.

Instead, the district's office of public defense must contract attorneys to represent the defendants, who would otherwise not be able to afford to hire their own private attorneys.

The ruling sets the wheels in motion for a possible showdown with state officials over staffing and funding for those attorneys constitutionally required to represent defendants facing possible incarceration.

This is a big deal for a criminal justice system, public defenders in particular, that have been on the receiving end of a number of budget cuts. The judge has given them the green light to hire the needed attorneys on a contract basis, although at this point no one is quite sure how it will get paid for.

That these services need to be funded was central to the judge’s ruling, from Chief Public Defender Karen Duncan’s interview with MPR:

"I think it's dangerous for our citizens if we're deciding that we no longer need to fund core government services," she said. "Public defense and the criminal court system is a constitutional mandate. It's not an option. It's not frosting for the citizenry."

The actual series of events that lead to Duncan asking for relief from the 46 cases is unusual, a combination of six attorneys taking a leave of absence and a case coming in with 17 co-defendants, all needing a public defender. But the underlying problem is real.

Again from Duncan’s interview with MPR:

"All of these things were happening at once," Duncan said. "And then I'm seeing more staff people still at work after midnight, working at 4 o'clock in the morning. And it was just so obvious that we cannot continue to do this."

Duncan said that, as a result, attorneys missed several court hearings that week.

"I'm not sure how much worse it can feel to go to court and have your lawyer not be there," she said.

The big question now becomes, will there be more of this? The 3rd Judicial District is not the only one with an overworked public defender’s office and it will be interesting to see if similar requests are made in other districts.

The entire interview is worth a listen:

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