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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Senate Endorses Study Of Public Defender's Office

The Montana Capitol
William Marcus
Montana Public Radio

Today at the Montana Legislature, the Senate Judiciary Committee voted to pass a bill that would create a two-year study on the Office of the State Public Defender. This year, legislators discussed, and argued about what to do with this office, which is meant to provide lawyers for those who can’t afford their own in criminal cases.In 2004, the state faced a lawsuit challenging its old system of funding the office through the counties, shifting the duty to the state. However, after seeing a growth of more than 60 percent over the last two years, public attorneys' massive workload has delayed court cases.

Mark Murphy of the Montana County Attorneys Association says the slowing system is causing an even greater prison population because prosecutors are getting more time to prepare their cases.

“If you give me enough time, I will produce a pretty good case at the end, and somebody’s going to prison,” said Murphy. 

Nearby Idaho still uses counties to fund their public defenders, but is looking to change its system to avoid the same lawsuit Montana faced. Still others like Oregon contract their attorneys out through private groups and nonprofits.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Representative Randy Brodehl says a few years of research on top of extra funds this year will hopefully establish a more sustainable model.

“They were funded only through the end of the biennium and will need to have a long-term operational budget plan in place to receive funds in the next biennium.”

The state budget as it stands now would fund for Office of the State Public Defender to about $32 million for the next two years, which is a more than $6 million increase.

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