Montana’s Office of the State Public Defender is in a dismal state. It’s underfunded and understaffed. The American Civil Liberties Union of Montana is hearing complaints from folks who say their cases were rushed. All signs are pointing to an expensive lawsuit for the state.

The Legislature can avoid this, of course, but so far has been running lukewarm on doing so. With time running out before the 2013 legislative session ends, it’s up to Montanans to demand that legislators make sure the public defenders office has the resources it needs to carry out its function.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s proposed fixes provided a fine starting point but were trampled by a legislative subcommittee early in the budgeting process. The governor had proposed to better fund the public defenders system and add 37 full-time-equivalent attorneys. This number was nowhere near the 77 Public Defender Commission chairman Richard E. “Fritz” Gillespie said was needed – but it was a far cry closer than the mere eight that have been approved in the Legislature so far.

Currently, the system is operating with 124 full-time lawyers and 75 support staff. Their duty is to represent people in court who cannot afford to hire legal counsel on their own.

Unfortunately, the notoriously low pay and heavy caseload in Montana has created a climate in which public defenders burn out quickly. Turnover is high, and contract attorneys are unwilling to work for the amount they are offered – typically, about $60 per hour, or roughly half the going rate.

Meanwhile, the caseload is only increasing. American Bar Association ethical standards limit the number of cases an individual attorney can take on at one time to 125 at most, and public defenders in some Montana counties have caseloads that exceed that limit.

And so, earlier this year the public defenders office announced that it will stop accepting cases in Region 4, which covers Broadwater, Jefferson, and Lewis and Clark counties.

What does this mean for poor defendants? In a February letter, Gillespie explained that “Charges may have to be dismissed; jail time may not be imposed without the assistance of counsel. Surcharges, fees, fines and costs may not be collected.”

This is unacceptable.

Montana’s legislators are understandably working hard at keeping state spending reined in. But this is one area where a penny saved now will cost a dollar later – and in the meantime, a basic right is being put at risk. That would be the right to effective representation in a court of law.

Montana was already sued for this once. In fact, that lawsuit is what led the state to create an Office of the State Public Defender in the first place. It’s not enough to simply have the structure in place – the state must also ensure it the system is working. Right now, it isn’t. And that’s begging for another lawsuit.

The only way to fix this is to allocate more money to hire more public defenders – and pay them better. Montana’s legislators must work to make this happen before the current session ends.

EDITORIAL BOARD: Publisher Jim McGowan, Editor Sherry Devlin, Opinion Editor Tyler Christensen

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