MN public defense attorneys concerned defendants not getting ‘adequate representation’ amid staffing shortages
(ABC 6 News) – Amid staffing shortages in virtually every industry, public defenders are buckling under heavy caseloads — feeling burnt-out and rushed.
Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, public defenders here in Olmsted County have been juggling 80 to 100 cases at a time. They usually manage about half of that. Some argue this directly impacts Minnesotans’ right to fair representation.
"It’s like being on a hamster wheel where I’m just going round and round and round and I get further behind and I don’t get any rest. Even when I work that much I’m still not convinced the defendants are getting adequate representation," associate public defense attorney Janet Krueger said.
The Minnesota Board of Public Defense reported in a recent House Judiciary Committee meeting that Minnesota needs another 149 attorneys and about 100 other legal staff to meet national standards. Backlogs in the court system and increased caseloads mean tired attorneys and neglected defendants. Some cases are passed around from attorney to attorney.
"You have somebody else that you’ve never talked to that’s all of a sudden sitting next to you in court. That’s not good representation," Krueger said.
Encounters with law enforcement are recorded, but Krueger said the heavy caseload means she doesn’t have time to go through each recording — potentially missing evidence that could prove innocence.
Legislators on both sides of the isle recognize the issue.
"I do look forward to a good healthy discussion about this, and looking for innovative ways that we can really dig through the backlog," said Senator Carla Nelson (R – Rochester).
However, it’s still unclear if the money will come from the state’s almost $8 billion surplus.
"I fully expect that we will be seeking supplemental budget items this year given the surplus and everything else that’s going on. And obviously we heard today the need — that is there," said Representative Jamie Becker-Finn (DFL – Roseville), chair of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee.
One solution may be hiring more staff to help with simple, time consuming tasks like paperwork. Minnesota legislators are saying its likely this issue will come up at the start of the next legislative session — January 31.