HELENA – Leaders with Montana’s Office of the State Public Defender told lawmakers Friday that they’re expecting higher caseloads in the coming years – and that could lead to higher costs.
The Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice held a hearing on the OPD budget.
The agency is requesting an additional $12.4 million for the next two years – a 19 percent increase over the budget approved in 2017. Leaders are also asking for more than $7 million in supplemental funding, to cover cost overruns from the current two-year period.
OPD provides legal services for people who can’t afford other attorneys. The agency represents defendants charged with a criminal offense that could lead to jail time, as well as juvenile defendants, parents and guardians involved in neglect cases, and others.
Agency leaders told the subcommittee they have seen a growing number of cases most years since OPD was created in 2006. Between the 2014 and 2018 fiscal years, the number of felony cases they handled per year increased from 6,597 to 8,755. The average duration of those cases has also increased.
When OPD doesn’t have enough staff attorneys to handle its workload, it contracts with private attorneys to cover some of the cases. Leaders say that is generally more expensive, as contracted attorneys are paid by the hour and often have to travel longer distances to court.
OPD leaders say they’ve taken steps to reduce their budget. Peter Ohman, administrator of the agency’s Public Defender Division, said 2018 was the first time the agency had managed to reduce expenditures.
One of the reasons for that reduction was that OPD brought in more staff attorneys to reduce the need for contracted attorneys. Another was the passage of House Bill 133 during the 2017 legislative session. It removed the possibility of jail time for a number of misdemeanors, like first offense theft, passing bad checks or possession of marijuana.
The number of misdemeanors OPD worked on dropped from 21,412 in the 2017 fiscal year to 18,966 in 2018. But leaders cautioned it may be only a temporary relief.
“When we took those out, we saw it go down, but all the other misdemeanors that we continue to represent people on, like DUI and obstructing and resisting and things like that, they have always historically gone up,” said Ohman. “So the thought is we had this one-off where the numbers go down because of 133, but these other cases are going to continue to go up like they previously have.”
OPD director Rhonda Schaffer told lawmakers the agency is also concerned about new proposals that could increase the number of cases they have to handle. She said some cities are sentencing people to jail time for violations of local ordinances, and that there have been proposals in the Legislature that could also add to the caseload.
“In the last session, the bills seemed to reduce sentences, or did not widen the net,” she said. “In this session, we seem to be widening the net and putting more pressure on OPD.”
OPD’s proposed budget increases would pay for additional staff attorneys and provide “career ladder” salary increases for attorneys who remain with the agency, to encourage employee retention. Leaders said they have struggled with turnover, as employees leave for higher-salary jobs.
The subcommittee could begin taking action on its section of the budget as soon as next week.
-Reported by Jonathon Ambarian/MTN News