Minnesota public defenders urged state legislators Tuesday to increase their funding to address staff shortages and high caseloads they say are hurting their clients.
Officials from the Minnesota Board of Public Defense and individual attorneys and staff appealed to the Judiciary Finance and Civil Law committee, clashing at times as criticisms were fired off at board leadership.
"We feel unsupported by our own agency and the judicial system in general," said Brenda Lightbody, an assistant public defender in the First Judicial District. "This is not an easy or glamorous job; it is a hard and thankless one."
The hearing was informational; no formal actions were taken.
State Public Defender Bill Ward, who oversees the board, and Kevin Kajer, the board's chief administrator, told legislators they need an additional $50 million to fully staff public defense offices across the state and to raise salaries to attract and retain attorneys.
"That gets us to a basic level," Ward said, adding that the state should strive for better because national standards for public defenders are "antiquated."
Ward said the office needs 149 more attorneys, 14 more managing attorneys and 98 additional support staff.
The office's attorney ranks are filled at 75 percent of what they should be, Kajer told legislators. Recruitment has been a challenge, he said, noting that a few years ago the office was receiving from 75 to 100 applicants for jobs in the two biggest court districts in Hennepin and Ramsey counties. But in late 2021, it was averaging 21 to 32.
Public defenders have lower starting salaries and slower salary increases compared with jobs at prosecutors' offices, Kajer said.
Preliminary survey results released by Teamsters Local 320, the union representing public defenders and staff, showed widespread discontent with their working conditions.
Lightbody and Fifth Judicial District public defender Ginny Barron told legislators that the board pays contract attorneys $60 an hour — more than its own lawyers — and has refused to offer staff overtime pay to work on cases as they juggle an overwhelming workload.
"I, like many of my colleagues, are drowning," Lightbody said. "It's about a system that doesn't support us, that indeed, often bullies us."
Lightbody and Barron said hiring contract attorneys is not a viable solution and that public defenders often have to clean up after them.
"Clients are forced to sit in jail longer because we can't keep qualified people," Barron said.
Cara Gilbert, a public defender in Ramsey County District Court who works on juvenile cases, said she had to file for bankruptcy in order to divorce her former spouse. She said some of her co-workers live check-to-check and one lives in Section 8 housing.
But, she said, the greatest consequence is that the office's clients suffer.
"My clients, our most vulnerable citizens — primarily children of color — bear the costs," Gilbert said.