Public Defenders Might Strike if More Funding Is Not Secured

MINNEAPOLIS – Public defenders in Minnesota face staffing shortages and believe themselves underpaid. With the legislature finding itself at an impasse regarding the budget, these lawyers might strike if things don’t get better soon.

“With the lack of funding, or very little funding, we anticipate the possibility of an impasse in negotiations this summer,” said Brad Michael, an investigator in the 4th judicial district, which includes Hennepin county.

At a press conference hosted by Minnesota Teamsters and Public Law Enforcement Employees Union, Local 320, Michael and three other public defenders addressed the issues public defenders face.

Currently the union says public defenders are staffed at about 70 percent of what they need to actually function. Their proposal would have seen that raised to 73 percent by 2016 and 75 percent by 2017.

“We are not law enforcement, we’re not the county attorney’s office. However, the wheels of justice do not turn without us,” Jill Nitke, a state investigator at the 10th Judicial District, said. “It’s a constitutionally mandated resource. We are appointed by the court to represent these people for whatever they’re charged with. From a misdemeanor to a felony, it makes no difference. We have to be there and when we’re understaffed, those people aren’t represented, and that’s a crime in my opinion.”

There has been little support in the legislature for the proposed increase in funding, either to expand staffing or for increases in public defender pay.

Teamsters Local 320 Secretary-Treasurer Brian Aldes said that most opposition for increased funding has come from Republicans in the legislature, while Rep. Debra Hilstrom (DFL – Brooklyn Center) has been one of their biggest supporters.

Hilstrom was scheduled to attend the press conference but was not present. She is the DFL lead on the Public Safety and Security Police and Finance Committee and is a lawyer in her own right, a prosecutor according to the state legislature’s website.

Public defenders in Minnesota make an average of slightly over $100,000 annually, about $30,000 less than prosecutors do according to the union.

“We have several attorneys who are working two jobs just to pay the bills,” Michael said. “That’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the clients, I mean the work is hard enough.”

Michael is concerned about the quality of lawyers among public defenders. He argues that the relatively speaking low salary drives lawyers to seek other employment. He estimates it takes new lawyers up to five years to know the system well enough to be high-quality public defenders.

“When people are unable to be compensated for their experience and their talent they’re going to leave and pursue other endeavors,” Aldes said.

Funding for the Board of Public Defense would come from passage of the Public Safety Bill.

Anders Koskinen