State public defenders have once again run out of state money for expert witnesses, translators and other services needed to defend the poor. They want counties to pony up.
The chief public defender for seven south-metro counties, including Dakota and Scott, says he's out of state money to pay for expert witnesses, interpreters and other services needed to defend the poor -- a funding shortage that has become commonplace in recent years.
Steve Holmgren, who is the First Judicial District chief public defender, and judges are giving a heads-up to administrators and other officials from Dakota to McLeod counties that they will have to pick up the tab for the final five months of the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Last week, for example, Dakota County commissioners learned that the public defenders will likely begin petitioning the court to order payments on a case-by-case basis.
Those thousands of dollars are crucial so that poor people can get equal representation, Holmgren said. "Often, we'll have a client who's charged with an offense, and we may see that there are mitigating circumstances, like mental health issues, so we'll often try to get medical records, for example, which we have to pay for out of the budget," he said. "Or we'll need to refer them to a psychologist or psychiatrist and try to get an evaluation of the person's state. All that costs money."
Among other thing, the state money also pays for interpreters for defendants who don't speak English.
Holmgren is speaking for public defenders in Dakota, Scott, McLeod, Carver, Le Sueur, Sibley and Goodhue counties in the First District.
Running on empty
For this fiscal year, which runs through June 30, Holm-gren's district received $37,000 from the state for the expert witnesses and other services, but for the past five years or so, he's run out of money by January or February. This year, he made it to early February, Holmgren said.
When the state money runs out, a state statute requires counties to pay those costs, which have ranged from an additional $4,000 to $30,000 for the second half of the year.
But increasingly tight county budgets are making the overruns more challenging to deal with. "In the past, we've been good partners and when there's been a shortfall, we've picked up things and helped out," said John Tuma, public safety and corrections lobbyist for the Minnesota Inter-County Association.
That group is now advising counties to push back on requests by asking for more information. Some counties have challenged the budget requests, much like recent challenges over county payment for child protection cases.
"Our willingness to help out in this situation has been waning," Tuma said.
Dakota County Attorney James Backstrom has strongly advocated for increasing state funding for Minnesota's public defenders. He's joined representatives from that agency, the Minnesota Supreme Court and other parts of the criminal justice system in several recent discussions with state lawmakers over the funding.
"We can't do our jobs effectively if we don't have sufficient staffing in the Public Defenders Office," Backstrom said. "We have delays in cases because of that, and when that occurs, victims suffer significantly."
Backstrom noted that elsewhere, delays in courts have led to dismissals of cases because defendants' right to a speedy trial under the U.S. Constitution was violated.
"Nobody wants to see that occur," he said.
While he supports increased funding, it should be coming from state coffers, including to pay for expert witnesses, rather than from the counties, he said.
Funding woes not new
The situation reflects what advocates call the chronic underfunding of public defenders across the state, where budget cuts have led to fewer defenders. Those who remain have heavy caseloads.
"State funding has always been an issue for public defenders," Backstrom said. "This is just another example."
The First District has four positions now vacant, but he was spared layoffs because four staff members volunteered to take unpaid leaves.
Holmgren said that in 2008, the First District had 50 employees -- 30 full-time and 20 part-time workers.
Now, there are 40 employees, 22 of whom are part time.
Holmgren said he doesn't know what will happen for the 2011-12 fiscal year because the Legislature is working on budgets for state agencies.
"We're funded until June 30, and then everything's up in the air again on July 1," he said.
Each year, the public defenders have typically needed more than twice the amount allocated by the state for the expert witnesses, translators and other services for poor defendants. Because they run out halfway through the fiscal year, the state public defenders must fill out petitions asking judges for money, Holmgren said. That takes time and manpower that wouldn't be needed if more money was allocated up front, he said.
Joy Powell • 952-882-9017 Staff writer Katie Humphrey contributed to this report.