The Minnesota House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee heard testimony on January 10 from the Public Security Committee, which expects the full House of Representatives to pass HF 90 to fully fund attorneys. general.
Before the Board of Directors funded history, 2022 was the year of outrage. In March 2022, public defense attorneys and staff allow an objection. They were able to reach an agreement to prevent resistance. Then Public Defender Bill Ward got a “no confidence” vote from the union. They now expect $25 million to go to the board in 2023, and $50 million in 2024 and 2025.
Public defenders represent 80% to 90% of the criminal population in Minnesota.
Kevin Kajer, executive director of the Public Safety Board, testified, “We are the biggest user of the justice system.”
There were 126,000 cases involving the board in 2022 in the district court. One third are misdemeanors, the other third are serious crimes, and about 20% are serious crimes. About 1,300 appeal files were opened by the appeals office.
While Kajer testified that there is a drop in cases of the COVID-19 disease, he said that those numbers are going up again. There are 9,000 cases back in the state, Kajer said.
As client needs increase, the number of available attorneys decreases.
“We’ve been hit by the Great Recession,” Kajer said.
In 2022, 15% of the workforce was lost to resignation. At last count, Kajer said, the board has 65 attorney positions available throughout the state, which is about 12-13% of the total workforce. Applications are also below 50-75%.
“It’s very similar to other practices in the country,” Kajer said.
Bill Ward, Minnesota State Public Defender, said the job itself requires a unique skill set and personality.
“We look for people who have the passion to do the work we do, not everyone,” he said.
However, pay is a big part, and neither Ward nor Kajer see an increase in applicants or retention happening until compensation is improved.
“We also have an employee retention situation,” said Ward. “People don’t want to work for us now because the pay is so low.”
Ward said there is no equivalent to the district attorney’s office in Minnesota.
Ward also cited poor working conditions as a reason for poor retention.
“The word ‘trauma’ does not describe what is happening to my staff. But that’s exactly the effect that happens because of the pressure of working on these issues,” said Ward.
Brian Aldes, secretary-treasurer and headquarters of Teamsters Local 320, said public defenders are citing concerns about not being able to do their jobs.
“They are more concerned that by forcing them as required by the Constitution in these serious and uncontrolled work situations, there is a possibility that the fundamental rights of the accused may be violated ,” said Aldes.
Supporters also said that the increase in funds is a lack of financing that affects consumers.
“We’re understaffed,” Ward said. “Our numbers are not what they need to represent our customers the way you all need to represent our citizens.
“We have businessmen who come in tears, with fear and anger because of the way they are being treated by the court. They feel like they are getting it from us because we don’t have the time, energy, or ability to do what we should be doing for them.
Beyond helping individuals in need, supporters say fully funding the board will strengthen the federal justice system that the state has made a priority in after the killing of George Floyd.
“Minnesota’s criminal justice system cannot achieve the changes it needs until the state strongly supports its Public Safety Board’s workforce and an adequate budget to provide adequate staffing. competitive salary, management control, and valuable resources,” Aldes said.
With many police officers wearing body cameras, even a routine arrest may have several hours of video, which then needs to be reviewed.
Rep. said. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, “I want to be on the record supporting this. This has been done for a long time and this is a constitutionally mandated issue and we must fund it.”
There were opportunities. The Rep. Brian Johnson, R-Cambridge, expressed concern about people using social security services when they don’t need them, saying it happened often in his district.
Ward disputed that. “Ninety-nine percent of the people we represent are very disadvantaged and should be represented,” he said.
“I really encourage you to think if your son, or your daughter, or your uncle or your cousin, was in an accident, would you want us to represent them ? You should. But you should know the state we are in and have been for the last twenty years? Ward said before the measure went to a voice vote.
HF 90 was approved by the House Judiciary and Judiciary Committee. It will go to the House Ways and Means Committee next.