The mess in Minnesota

45 years after Gideon’s promise, it seems that Minnesota is going backwards. It always astounds me when I read stories from other states about their public defense systems and their inadequate funding. Makes me feel lucky and proud to be in CT.

But this is utter nonsense. Apparently, there was a problem with the budget in MN and funding for public defenders fell short by $4.7 million. This renders them unable to fill the 19 already vacant positions, but might lead to cutting sixty-one (61!!!) current positions.

“In a state where our public defenders already work well in excess of caseloads recommended by the American Bar Association, these new staffing reductions will certainly have an adverse affect on the speed and quality of the entire justice system,” Stuart said.

The public defense board provides criminal and juvenile defense services to people who can’t afford to hire a private lawyer. Stuart said there are currently about 525 attorneys are working as full- or part-time public defenders across Minnesota, handling about 170,000 cases a year.

Funding for public defense work comes entirely from the state in most counties. Stuart said the board operated at a $1.4 million deficit this fiscal year, which ends June 30, and was staring at a $1.9 million shortfall for next year even before the loss of $1.5 million in state funding for 2009.

This is not a good situation. The ramifications of this go far beyond simple unemployment for a few lawyers. This could lead to a complete and total breakdown of the criminal justice system.

I’ll let Accident Prone, a public defender in MN explain:

Prosecutors aren’t facing any sort of staffing cuts. They will still be charging cases. Judges will still be sitting on the bench to hear those cases. Cops will still be arresting my clients on the streets and filling the jail. But with 12 less public defenders in my district, those clients cannot be assured adequate representation. The whole criminal system will suffer. By law, indigent people in Minnesota must be represented by someone employed by the Minnesota Board of Public Defense. There is no such thing as private-bar appointments. As I sit here with at least 25 open felonies (and a slew of misdemeanors) on my desk that include Criminal Sexual Conduct and Attempted Murder, I wonder how I could take on more and still spot every legal issue, do all the investigation, and prep every trial with the level of comprehensiveness I find necessary.

This is completely irresponsible. Defendants will either be forced to take awful deals or go to trial without lawyers, thus denying them a basic Constitutional right. Prison populations will swell and there will be a lawsuit, either about overcrowding or the failure to follow Gideon.

But, ofcourse, a new parking garage for the Mall of America is more important than the right to counsel.

3 thoughts on “The mess in Minnesota

  1. Kathleen Casey

    Walter Mondale, in 1963 the Minn. State Attorney General, filed an amicus brief in Gideon supporting the concept, as a prosecutor. Didn’t he? So if I have the history right, this is an even more disheartening step backwards, isn’t it?

  2. bfrederick

    In South Carolina our legislature has made some strides toward equalizing solicitors and indigent defense, and a new statewide indigent defense bill passed the house.

    Our governor promptly vetoed the funding bill for indigent defense, stating that he does not want us to send the wrong message by increasing funding for public defenders. As of today, our entire indigent defense system is in danger, and we wait to see if our legislature will override the governor’s veto.

  3. Pingback: Bailout where it’s needed: public defender systems | a public defender

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