An extra $6.5 million in funding will help lighten the caseloads of overworked and underpaid public defenders in the state.
The funds are enough to cover the salaries of 36 new public defenders, but Minnesota's Board of Public Defense, which employs the state's public defenders, is also struggling with heavy caseloads and salaries that aren't competitive with the private sector.
The agency will meet next week to discuss how to spend the additional funds.
Public defenders in Minnesota represent poor clients charged with felonies, gross misdemeanors and misdemeanors, as well as juveniles and children in need of protective services.
"As I tell people, my job is to represent and advocate, oftentimes, for the voiceless and people who have been marginalized," State Public Defender Bill Ward told MPR News host Cathy Wurzer on Wednesday. "There are a lot of people with a lot of issues out there, and folks sometimes just discard the individuals we represent on a daily basis."
The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders carry no more than 400 cases a year, Ward said. In Minnesota, public defenders are handling more than 650 cases on average each year.
Those heavy caseloads are one reason that public defenders are leaving the agency in droves, Ward said. But the fact that many young law students are graduating with at least $100,000 in debt can also make it difficult to attract new public defenders, who Ward says make less than the prosecutors they face in court.
"The problem is our salaries, like other public defender offices around the nation, have really not kept pace with cost of living," said Ward.
Part of the new funding will likely go towards salary increases. But Ward said agency officials are also hoping to recruit more public defenders in rural parts of the state. In 40 Minnesota counties, a public defender isn't required to be present at a client's first court appearance. The agency has struggled for funding in recent years. Even the current boost in funding will only allow the agency to slightly reduce caseloads.
"We're oftentimes the unknown and under-appreciated agency in the state," Ward said. "It's not just the people who are accused, it's about protecting everyone's constitutional rights."