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Minnesota Board of Public Defense seeking extra $50 million from legislature

Published: Jan. 11, 2022 at 6:52 PM CST
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ROCHESTER, Minn. (KTTC) – A recent survey found many Minnesota public defense attorneys and staffers are feeling unsupported and overworked in their current positions. In a House of Representatives hearing Tuesday, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense voiced concerns about working conditions and budget allocation.

“This is not just a Greater Minnesota issue. It’s starting to creep into the metro area as well,” Minnesota Board of Public Defense Chief Administrator Kevin Kajer said.

Minnesota is one of 26 states in the nation that operates on a state-based system when it comes to public defense. This means it’s the legislature’s job to allocate funds to the department.

In the last few months, the board has seen a drop in the number of applicants.

This graph breaks it down by districts. Olmsted County is in the third district, with an average of 1.2 applicants.

Applicants drop
Applicants drop(KTTC)

“We will have hired about 40 percent of our lawyer staff in the last three years and about 25 percent of our support staff in the last three years,” Kajer said.

Olmsted County Attorney Mark Ostrem doesn’t employ public defenders, because his office hires prosecutors. However, in order to do his job, a defense needs to be present.

“Our system very specifically depends on public defenders. They carry a very significant portion of the criminal defense caseload in Olmsted County,” Ostrem said.

So, to help solve the public defender shortage, the Board of Public Defense is asking lawmakers to get to the national standard which adds up to an extra $50 million in funding.

“We’ve never been funded to get to the national standard ever. As I’ve testified many times over the course of the past decade, cases are following through the cracks, because we don’t have the sufficient staff to meet the needs of our clients,” Minnesota Board of Public Defense State Public Defender William Ward said.

This money would go toward not only hiring more attorneys, but also other support staff in the public defenders offices such as investigators, paralegals and legal assistants.

Staff numbers needed
Staff numbers needed(KTTC)

“We can’t have a case go forward if a defendant does not have an appropriate attorney representing them, and so the system could come to a whole screeching halt if there aren’t enough attorneys to represent their clients,” Ostrem said.

The Minnesota Board of Public Defense also found one third of public defenders who leave the sector end up working in some type of government body such as a city or county office.

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