It was time for Thursday morning's arraignments at the Dakota County courthouse, and robbery suspect LaVeal Allen was angry at his public defender, who had met with him briefly -- along with about 15 others, one after another -- just before court.

"She's not really done anything for me," Allen told the judge after firing the attorney, whom he said didn't have time to answer his questions.

On the bench was District Judge Joseph Carter, a former chief public defender in the First Judicial District. He's among judges, prosecutors and police who are increasingly worried that too few public defenders are available to handle a growing court docket. The county lost five public defenders last year and could lose more under proposed state budget cuts.

"The public defenders are in trouble, and as a result of their being in trouble, the court system is in trouble," Carter said in an interview. "It means that our justice system will slow down considerably and so cases will go unresolved, and that's very harmful for the victims and witnesses and general public. It also means that we will have to probably confine ourselves to more serious offenses, and other offenses will be delayed."

One danger, the judge said, is that criminals whose cases are not addressed could become involved in even more serious offenses, "and so it can snowball very quickly."

Last year, public defenders saw a 12 percent cut to their budgets and laid off 53 attorneys statewide. Gov. Tim Pawlenty now proposes a 5 percent cut, which could lead to layoffs of 14 percent of the attorneys, said John Stuart, Minnesota's chief public defender.

Dakota County Attorney Jim Backstrom said the state's public defenders are "woefully" underfunded after the cutbacks of the past two years.

Impact is widespread

"They do not have enough staff to handle their cases," Backstrom said, "and that directly impacts all of us who work in the criminal justice system, including the prosecutors. Our cases are delayed. We have staff in courtrooms waiting for public defenders to arrive, which also inconveniences the court and witnesses."

Without adequate funding, state court officials say, they'll be forced to delay or no longer process more than 20 types of cases, from truancy to delinquency cases to restraining orders. And they fear cases could be thrown out because they'll take too long to get to court.

In fact, a state senator last week introduced a bill that would end prosecution of certain crimes, an acknowledgement that the court system is under stress. State Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson has made a similar suggestion.

"I'm very concerned that, without adequate funding, the public safety of our state citizens will be put at risk, and our public's confidence in our system of equal and fair justice for all will begin to erode," Backstrom said.

Traditionally in Dakota County, criminal cases have moved through the system in about three months, but now, cases are being set six months out, public defenders and Carter said.

"I've had a couple of trials in the last couple of weeks where the offense had occurred so long ago that witnesses had trouble remembering what had happened, so that's a big problem," Carter said.

Last year, Dakota County laid off two public defenders in response to budget cuts. Two others left, but their vacant spots cannot be filled because of a hiring freeze, said Steve Holmgren, chief public defender for the First Judicial District. A fifth Dakota County public defender agreed to take a year off under a salary-savings program.

So Dakota County lost five public defenders out of seven that the First District lost last year. The other counties in the district are Carver, Goodhue, LeSueur, McLeod, Scott and Sibley.

Dakota County now has 18 public defenders, out of 44 in the district, Holmgren said. In Scott County, there are seven public defenders; one was laid off last year.

The economy is worsening the strain. The number of criminal cases in Dakota County by has increased 9 percent over this time a year ago, said Carol Renn, the county's court administrator. At the same time, more people are qualifying for public defenders because they have lost their jobs in the recession. Some are committing crimes out of desperation to feed their families and to pay bills, Renn said.

She and Chief Deputy Dave Bellows of the Dakota County Sheriff's Office said that as economic times get difficult, generally the crime rate rises, including more thefts and domestic violence.

The situation threatens to make public defenders' caseloads even heavier -- even though each already shoulders nearly 800 cases a year, Holmgren said. That's nearly twice the number that the American Bar Association recommends per lawyer.

In Dakota County these days, public defenders carry 125 to 150 felony cases at any given time, and some said they are struggling to get continuances because they don't have time to prepare for trial. That load is nearly double what the south-metro public defenders handled when they were at full strength in Dakota County.

"How do you expect to give the appropriate amount of representation to every client when they have 150 cases and 150 different people who are in 150 different situations?" said Catherine Turner, a Dakota County public defender who was laid off last year and now represents some clients for free and others on a sliding fee scale.

"It's impossible," she said. "I would say it's borderline unethical to require lawyers to do that, having to take less time with everybody. Justice doesn't work that way."

Joy Powell • 952-882-9017