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Do Overworked and Underpaid MN Public Defenders Put Justice at Risk?

Workloads for Minnesota's state public defenders are too high and affect their ability to represent clients, according to a 2010 report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. (AJEL/Pixabay)
Workloads for Minnesota's state public defenders are too high and affect their ability to represent clients, according to a 2010 report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. (AJEL/Pixabay)
February 11, 2019

By Filiberto Nolasco Gomez / Broadcast version by Roz Brown
Reporting for the Workday Minnesota-Minnesota News Connection Collaboration

MINNEAPOLIS – Amy Kantorowicz is an investigator in the public defender's office.

Her job varies and can include interviewing witnesses, filing Data Practices Act requests, and helping defendants find shoes and clothing for trial. Her clients can be a mix of people, for example, she serves those that have been victims of identity theft, the wrongfully accused or vulnerable adults. While most are aware that there is a constitutional right to an attorney, Kantorowicz points out that an investigator is also included as a right.

Kantorowicz is a 19-year veteran of the public defender’s office and her motivation has deep roots going back to when she first worked with the public defender’s office twenty years ago during her graduate practicum.

"I just didn’t like the stories that I heard and the way I saw people being treated,” said Kantorowicz. "So I enjoy being the checks and balances of the system. I enjoy working with the clients."

“Often a defendant in this case, is a victim in this case, is a witness in this case. We are often talking about the same person. At the end of the day it's about getting that person what they need to be successful and hopefully get out of the system,” Kantorowicz said. Guilty or innocent, Kantorowicz is dealing with people who are often facing the most life-changing experience of their lives, “It’s stressful when you are dealing with people at their worst.”

However, her commitment has been rewarded with salary freezes and a department that has been chronically underfunded leading to workload issues. Wages are uncompetitive, and as a result as soon as people can, they leave the public defender’s office.

Kantorowicz works anywhere between 70-100 hours a week among three jobs transported by her late model car. Throughout the eight years of the Pawlenty administration wages were frozen. She ended up missing eight of her regular step increases, "the difference in the step increase is the difference between working one job or three.”

Currently, employees like Kantorowicz of the public defender's office will be in contract negotiations with the Board of Public Defense this summer. They are represented by Teamster Local 320. Wages and overwhelming caseloads are the top issues.

However, the contract negotiations won't be simply about pay but rather improving and preserving the constitutional rights of those that can’t afford an attorney. Rights are being violated when staffing is at a low level. The public defender’s office has 68% of the attorney staff and 57% of the support staff that state and national standards say they should have. Guidelines from the American Bar Association recommend that public defenders handle no more than 400 cases per year; however in Minnesota, caseloads exceed 500 cases per year.

In response, the State Board of Public Defense is calling for an increase in funding,

“The proposed 2020-2021 budget request can be summed up in two words: maintenance and stability. The budget request would maintain and stabilize staffing levels and services provided. (first court appearance) while also hopefully stabilizing our workforce by being able to offer salaries that are comparable to other public agencies.”

"In my 20 years with Teamsters Local 320 representing front-line attorneys and staff, I am excited to finally see the Board pursue a budget that will begin to help those who have been left behind for so long," says Brian Aldes, Secretary-Treasurer and Principal Officer of Teamsters Local 320. "Justice isn’t equal; case loads are out of control, working conditions are unhealthy, and the cost of turnover is breaking the system. We must do better for our public defenders."

Representative John Lesch is a former prosecutor and he argues that, “we need to make sure that they [public defenders] are getting the resources they need.”

“I have made it clear that I think we need to prioritize their [public defender’s office] funding in the state budget,” Lesch said."They have been shortchanged for years, I see it in person in the courtroom. Their caseloads are ridiculous.”

According to a February 2010 report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor, "Workloads are too high, affecting both the ability of public defenders to represent clients and the operation of state courts.” Furthermore explaining that “high public defender workloads have created significant challenges for Minnesota’s criminal justice system.”

Shannon Callahan is an Assistant Public Defender with the Goodhue County Public Defender’s Office for two and a half years. Prior to that, she worked at the appellate public defender’s office both as a student and a Special Assistant Public Defender. Callahan has consistently seen co-workers leave to become county attorney’s or go into private practice. She has sacrificed a lot by staying, “I hate living paycheck to paycheck.”

The workload issues persist.

An April 11, 2017 presentation to the Board of Public Defense explained their position and the challenges they are facing:

– Clients are coming to us with more complex health and chemical dependency issues, with fewer resources.

– Our workload has significantly increased to deal with the complex client needs, and complex cases.

– Cases are increasingly more difficult to prepare and to litigate.

The workloads and lack of support for the public defender's office has broader consequences, "When you are consistently shortchanging one element of that it slows the entire business of justice down for everyone. Not to mention folks not getting their due process under the law,” Lesch said.

National organizations argue that underfunding the public defender system contributes to systemic inequalities.

In their 2009 report, Justice Denied: America’s Continuing Neglect of Our Constitutional Right to Counsel, The Constitution Project’s National Right to Counsel Committee, co-chaired by Walter Mondale, wrote,

“Because of insufficient funding, in much of the country, training, salaries, supervision, and staffing of public defender programs are unacceptable for a country that values the rule of law. Every day, the caseloads that defenders are asked to carry force lawyers to violate their oaths as members of the bar and their duties to clients as outlined in rules of professional conduct.”

Nationally, approximately 95 percent of criminal cases are plea-bargained, in part because public defenders are too overwhelmed to take them to trial.

These workload issues mean that public defenders have limited time with clients and infringe upon their ability to prepare cases.

The impacts of the underfunded department are clear for Callahan. They are good attorneys under challenging circumstances. Since there are fewer attorneys to meet the constitutional mandate it makes it a lot more challenging to focus on clients, and as Callahan says, "clients feeling like we aren’t hearing them.” Because of the structural problems clients are not getting the services that they deserve. Since there's less time to work on cases there is a greater chance that errors will be made.

Denying the constitutional to proper representation harms both the accused and society at large.

As Lesch described, “5-8 10 years later, we find out that we have been convicting innocent people. Another burden to the court system.”

Filiberto Nolasco Gomez is Editor for Workday Minnesota, a project of the Labor Education Service at the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @workdaymn

Roz Brown, Public News Service - MN