Public defenders throughout the state are straining under growing case loads as years of budget cuts have thinned their ranks, but the problem may be worst in the 3rd Judicial District in southeastern Minnesota.
There, Chief Public Defender Karen Duncan has asked Steele County District Judge Casey J. Christian to remove public defenders from 45 open cases, a first for Minnesota. A hearing was held Tuesday afternoon.
"It's simply that we don't have anybody we can assign," Duncan told the St. Paul Pioneer Press. "I find people sleeping on the couch of our Owatonna office because they've worked all night, and they're catching a nap before court. ... Everyone recognizes we've got a bad situation here."
The situation is the culmination of statewide issues that have been building for years. Tougher sentences, new laws every year and increasingly complex cases have thrust poor defendants before the courts for longer periods, piling work on the state public defense system even as it experiences back-to-back budget cuts.
Karin Sonneman, Winona County's only full-time public defender, made headlines last year for simultaneously juggling 250 open cases, most of them felonies. National standards recommend that defenders handle no more than 150 felony cases - per year.
"We're down to about 50 percent of the public defenders for what we need right now," said the district's chief judge, Robert Benson, who is based in Fillmore County. "That's not absorbable. We can't absorb it. It's bad all over the state, but the 3rd District is especially bad."
Experts say the shortage hurts more than just the defendants.
"As cases get old, witnesses forget," said Judge Jeffrey Thompson, who is based in Winona County. "Witnesses move out of state. Defendants aren't held accountable."
And by law, accused criminals who exert their constitutional right to a speedy trial could walk free if an attorney isn't available to represent them. Legal appeals increase when cases are mismanaged.
Chuck Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Minnesota, has been monitoring the situation in the Rochester-based 3rd District. He notes the 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Gideon vs. Wainwright, which determined that states must provide legal representation to defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
"If the state is constitutionally obliged to make sure that everyone is represented, if that's true, then the question is, are these caseloads enough to violate the U.S. Supreme Court's Gideon decision?" Samuelson asked. "In my opinion, that situation is close everywhere in the state."
Kevin Kajer, chief administrator for the state's Board of Public Defense, said the 10 judicial districts have lost the equivalent of 60 full-time lawyers since 2008, about 15 percent of their staff, through a combination of layoffs, leaves and attrition.
The state's public defense budget, which was $69.5 million last year, dropped to $67 million this year, despite a boost from a temporary new attorney registration fee. It could drop again next year when the registration fee expires.
Duncan, the district's chief public defender, asked the courts in a recent letter not to prosecute lesser, nonviolent offenses, such as parking complaints and low-level shoplifting, to the full extent of the law, but to instead direct more cases to diversion programs.
She noted six attorneys were scheduled for leaves of absence as of July.
"We have no more elasticity," Duncan wrote. "We cannot absorb the work of the attorneys who are leaving."
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press
(Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)