Public defenders lost to budget cuts

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Public defenders, the lawyers appointed to represent the poorest Minnesotans in criminal court, have taken another budget cut this year. The Board of Public Defense will take a $1.5 million hit in the budget deal reached between the Legislature and Gov. Tim Pawlenty, a cut that will result in 98 fewer attorneys and a deficit of $4.7 million.

Public defenders are a constitutional right, particularly for those charged with a crime who cannot afford representation. During an arrest, the officer typically states, “You have the right to have an attorney present during questioning. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you free of charge.”

But as numbers of public defenders shrink and their caseloads increase, how effective can that representation be? According to Barbara Jones at the Minnesota Lawyer blog, these budget cuts will reduce their full time staff by 14.5 percent. Public defenders are already stretched thin and working caseloads higher than 900, which is more than twice the limit set by the American Bar Association.

It’s not the first time the “No New Taxes” pledge has encroached on Minnesotans’ constitutional rights. In 2003, Republicans pushed for and Pawlenty signed a law that charged a fee to the poorest of the poor when they were appointed an attorney: $50 for a misdemeanor, $100 for a gross misdemeanor and $200 for a felony. The fee was instituted to make up for cuts to Minnesota’s public defenders.

The Minnesota Supreme Court found that fee structure to be an unconstitutional barrier to the right to representation.