HELENA — Public attorneys tasked with defending high-profile criminal cases are among the lowest paid in state government, prompting many of them to take jobs as staff attorneys in state agencies and elsewhere, the Office of the Public Defender told lawmakers Wednesday.
Turnover in a year can exceed 40 percent due to pay inequity, agency officials said in arguing that a budget increase is needed to boost pay and add more attorneys to reduce the caseload. Lawyers right out of college are routinely handling 600 cases in their first year.
"Any business that has a third of its personnel turning over is a business that is doomed to failure," said Fritz Gillespie, public defender commission chairman.
The public defender's office is asking for about $5 million in each of the next two years to hire around 37 more staffers, on top of the 209 it has right now, and to increase pay closer to market standards.
A law school graduate, with perhaps $100,000 in debt, currently receives a starting salary of $43,000, the agency said. The attorney can earn 30 percent or more elsewhere in state government or working as county a prosecutor, the agency said.
The chairman of the Joint Appropriations Subcommittee on the Judicial Branch, Law Enforcement and Justice told the agency he agrees there is a problem — but warned there may not be enough money to meet their request.
Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena, said his panel hopes to provide some money to help with the problem when it makes a recommendation next week.
The proposal would then be part of a proposed state budget that faces hurdles in both the full House and the Senate. The increase, included in Gov. Steve Bullock's budget request, would compete at each stop with demands from across state government in front of Republican-led panels looking for ways to trim spending.
"I honestly don't know what we do with the public defender's system. I really don't know," Gibson said during Wednesday's hearing.
Prosecutors told an appropriations subcommittee the high turnover leads to ongoing delays in the prosecution of cases. Whenever a defender leaves, a judge places their cases on hold until they are re-assigned.
It is a situation that delays justice not only for the defendant but for the victims," said Mark Murphy, a lobbyist with the Montana County Attorney Association. "I would ask that you look very carefully at that budget."
"The goal is to stop the turnover and keep our people so we can provide effective assistance of counsel," said Harry Freebourn, administrative director for Montana's public defender system. "If we fix the pay, we will stop the turnover. But we need the extra positions to take that person with 600 cases a year down to 400, because at 600 you are just a MASH unit."