HELENA – A legislative budget panel Tuesday declined to endorse the Bullock administration’s proposal to greatly increase staff at the overburdened public defender’s office.

The panel’s inaction on the Bullock proposal to add 37 new positions to the Office of Public Defender comes four days after the office announced it will start taking formal steps to restrict its caseload in its Helena region.

In a letter to the budget panel dated Friday, Richard “Fritz” Gillespie, a Helena attorney who chairs the Public Defender Commission, said hundreds of open cases, a lack of money and other factors have forced the public defender’s office to notify courts in Lewis and Clark, Jefferson and Broadwater counties that it must limit new cases it can accept.

Caseloads are becoming so large that the office can’t effectively represent its clients, who are poor people who can’t afford attorneys in criminal cases, he said.

“Charges may have to be dismissed; jail time may not be imposed without the assistance of counsel,” Gillespie wrote. “Surcharges, fees, fines and costs may not be collected. However, the ethical obligations owed by the public defenders trump any disruption caused.”

Yet the chairman of the budget panel said Tuesday he’s not convinced that adding new attorneys to the public defender’s office will solve its problems.

“I believe one of the real first issues is to get their pay up, so they can retain people,” said Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, who chairs the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice. “It’s not to say that we’re not going to look at (additional people) down the road. The thing is to get their pay up, so they can keep experienced people.”

The subcommittee took its final action on the Office of Public Defender budget Tuesday morning, approving a $49 million, two-year budget – about $4.6 million less than proposed by the Bullock administration.

The subcommittee’s recommendation goes next to the full House Appropriations Committee, which will vote on the full budget bill early next month.

The panel added two new positions to the public defender’s office on Tuesday, and earlier this month approved some pay increases for attorneys and some temporary positions added within the last year.

Yet Gillespie said the panel didn’t approve any of the additional 37 positions requested by Bullock.

The office, which defends poor people who can’t afford a lawyer in criminal cases, has 124 full-time lawyer positions on staff and 75 additional staff.

In the Helena region, 3,000 new cases were assigned in fiscal 2012 to an office that has 11 staff attorneys, Gillespie said. About 1,900 cases were carried forward to the next fiscal year, in July, and 774 cases were added during the first three months of that year, he added.

Gillespie said the public defender’s office will be asking the full House Appropriations Committee to increase its budget.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or by email at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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