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Minnesota lawyers frustrated over shortage of public defenders
Public defense lawyers across Minnesota are throwing up their arms in frustration. Public defenders say they're overburdened with huge caseloads. Budget cuts have forced layoffs within their ranks. And more public defenders are quitting because of stress. Some say the crisis jeopardizes the legal rights of Minnesota's poor. Public defenders are turning to the Minnesota Supreme Court and the Legislature for help.

Bemidji, Minn. — This year marks the 40th anniversary of Gideon versus Wainwright. It was a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case establishing that everyone has the right to an attorney, even people who can't afford one.

Kris Kolar, chief public defender for Minnesota's 9th Judicial District in northwest Minnesota, says it's becoming increasingly difficult to meet the demand for public defenders. It's especially tough in rural areas. There are fewer lawyers to cover a huge region.

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Image Kris Kolar

Kolar's district covers 17 counties. Lawyers in the 9th Judicial District have the highest caseload in the state. Kolar is hoping the Legislature will provide more money to the system.

"I think it's very serious," said Kolar. "I think the situation right now is extremely serious. But if we don't get the supplemental funding request, I think that it's going to be a disaster. The caseloads, such as they are right now, are way too high."

Minnesota's public defenders typically handle more than 900 cases a year. That's more than twice the number recommended by the American Bar Association. The workload often forces Kolar to work nights and weekends. She had to cancel her family vacation this year because she was needed in court. Kolar says her staff is stressed out.

"What I think it has done, is it has placed an unreasonable burden on the assistant public defenders and their personal lives," she said. "I have had numerous resignations in this district from dedicated people."

Kolar has had eight public defenders quit in just the past year. One of those was Rocky Wells, who worked in the district's Brainerd office. Wells said he was doing the work of two public defenders. He was working as many as 200 cases at a time. Wells had to put in long hours to keep up. But he got no additional pay for it.

"It was getting to the point where, because of court committments three, four days a week, having to go in earlier and stay later, bringing work home with you and doing it on weekends and such ... I was becoming cranky and irritable," said Wells. "It was having an ill effect on my emotional and physical health. And my family was kind of paying the price for that."

I was becoming cranky and irritable. It was having an ill effect on my emotional and physical health. And my family was kind of paying the price for that.
- Rocky Wells, former public defender

Wells is now a prosecutor for Crow Wing County, where he has more time to spend on cases. Wells says as a public defender, he had little time to meet with his clients.

"We got used to moving huge numbers of cases through the system," Wells said. "But from the client or the consumer's point of view. I mean, when you walk into court and that's the first time that you meet your attorney, in their eyes, they're not being adequately represented."

Catherine Beane works for the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Beane says public defense systems are chronically underfunded throughout the country.

"The bottom line is that people aren't being treated fairly," Beane said.

The association is working with stakeholders in a number of states to assess public defender systems and rally for reform.

"In America, the justice you get shouldn't depend on how much money you have," said Beane. "Unfortunately, states have failed in their responsibility to provide the kinds of resources needed to make sure that folks who are accused of crimes have an adequate attorney representing them."

During this year's legislative session, the Minnesota Board of Public Defense requested funding for an additional 102 public defenders. They got none. In fact, they lost positions. State budget cuts took away 20 attorney and staff jobs. More cuts are planned for 2004. Public defenders say they'll take their case to lawmakers again next year.

Meanwhile, the board has petitioned the state Supreme Court for help. They want the high court to make some rule changes. One example would be to allow delays in some criminal proceedings when public defenders are overbooked. The Supreme Court hears the request October 15th.

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