Nearly one out of eight public defenders in Minnesota could be laid off over the next few months as part of a $4.7 million budget cut being considered by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense.

The proposed cut, from a budget of $68 million, was announced Wednesday by John Stuart, the state public defender.

The board, which provides and oversees legal representation to indigent clients, will meet June 5 to discuss the recommendation and other options for cutting costs.

Stuart said the proposed cuts would involve 61 full-time equivalent positions, or about 68 attorneys statewide.

"We've laid off people before, but never in these kinds of numbers," said Kevin Kajer, chief administrator for the Minnesota Board of Public Defense.

Currently, about 525 attorneys are working as full- or part-time public defenders across Minnesota, handling about 170,000 cases a year, Stuart said.

In December 2007, the board put a freeze on the hiring of public defenders. Stuart said there are about 37 vacant positions that haven't been filled since then.

He said that he didn't know where the additional cuts would be made but that all 87 counties would be affected.

Some attorneys may take advantage of early retirement or temporary leave options, he said, but it is unlikely those numbers will be significant.

"It's a very difficult situation," board Chairwoman Laura Budd said. "We'll have to see what happens in the next week or so. But it's a problem -- it's a big problem for everyone."

Stuart said the board operated at a $1.4 million deficit this fiscal year, which ends June 30.

A projected deficit of $1.9 million for next year, coupled with the loss of $1.5 million in state funding for 2009 prompted the decision to cut jobs.

In most counties, funding for public defense work comes entirely from the state. However, in Hennepin County, the state and county share in the cost of providing the services.

Almost 90 percent of the board's budget is tied up in salaries and benefits for employees, Stuart said. Another 7 percent goes to contractual expenses such as building rents and mileage.

The Board of Public Defense avoided major cuts several years ago when the state came up with money to avoid a projected $7.6 million budget paring.

But Stuart said the current financial trouble is different.

"I think the economy is in position now where everybody is more locked into hard times than we were five years ago," Stuart said.

As more people "feel the grip of economic downturn," he added, it'll likely mean more business for public defenders.

But with fewer attorneys available, caseloads for public defenders are likely to increase significantly.

Richard Meryhew • 612-673-4425