Hats off to the judges and public defenders in Ramsey County for reaching a reasonable solution to a vexing problem for indigent defendants facing criminal misdemeanor and felony charges in the district court system.
Under terms of a compromise worked out earlier this month, there will be more predictability in the way cases come to trial in the district. That should give public defenders and their clients more time to prepare defenses and work out plea arrangements under less-stressful conditions than the previous system provided.
Instead of a practice in which cases were called to trial by the presiding judge anytime during a four-week period, Ramsey County district judges now will hold “trial blocks” of just two weeks in duration and be available to back up one another more regularly.
Unfortunately, it took two contempt-of-court citations against an assistant public defender and the county’s chief public defender, James Fleming, to focus attention on the overworked and understaffed conditions that prevail not only in Ramsey County but also in the offices of public defenders across Minnesota.
Perhaps the Ramsey County dust-up can serve as a moment of introspection for the public defender process throughout Minnesota and open a debate for measures to address a system that frustrates lawyers and defendants alike.
“We don’t have enough public defenders in this state. Sometimes it’s just a lot easier to give money to law enforcement than it is to public defenders,” said Mankato attorney Herb Kroon, a former public defender and a member of the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, the agency that oversees an $86-million-a-year budget for the state’s 436 public defenders in 87 counties. Those attorneys handle a total of 150,000 cases each year. Guidelines from the American Bar Association recommend that individual public defenders should handle no more than 400 cases a year; in Minnesota, individual caseloads easily exceed 500 cases annually.
The right to court-appointed counsel in criminal cases goes back many years but was highlighted most famously in the early 1960s with the Florida case of Gideon vs. Wainwright, in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the Constitution extended the right to legal representation to state courts as well as federal courts.
Following that ruling, Minnesota created a system for full- and part-time public defenders. In the 1980s, funding for the system was made primarily a state rather than a county responsibility. Today that system is strained. State public defender William Ward says his office is at 70 percent of its financial need — a situation that the 2018 Legislature should remedy.
In an era that now grapples with forensic procedures that didn’t exist in the 1990s, a steady increase of immigration issues, and a growing number of juvenile and family law cases, it seems a good time for discussion about how attorneys are used in their roles as public defenders and how the poor are treated in the court system.
Bail reform, the handling of nonviolent crimes such as disorderly conduct and loitering, and diversion programs for first-time offenders are worthy topics, as are time limitations for disposing of more serious crimes. These may not be politically popular issues in a law-and-order environment, but they seem worthy of discussion.