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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Facing Cuts, Public Defender's Office Freezes Salaries, Reduces Contract Payments

Missoula County Courthouse.
Cheri Trusler
Montana Public Radio
Missoula County Courthouse.

State budget cuts mean the Office of the State Public Defender is freezing salaries and reducing pay to contractors.

Testifying before the state Legislature’s Law and Justice Interim Committee Tuesday, Harry Freeborn, the head of the Montana public defender's office says the budget that lawmakers and the governor gave him is smaller than in previous years. 

“We have a $10 million shortfall that we’re trying to deal with,” Freeborn says.

Freeborn says that in order to deal with the smaller budget, the public defender's office has frozen pay increases for employees. And starting March 1, it will reduce how much it pays outside investigators, attorneys, and other support staff in defense cases, by about 10 percent.

Public defenders contract out casework when there is a possible conflict of interest in the case, or when their own caseload is too heavy.

Agency staff say there is the possibility of public defender caseloads growing if these pay cuts to providers are implemented.

During the regular 2017 legislative session, public defenders expressed concern about budget reductions impacting their job in providing constitutionally guaranteed legal services.

The state public defender’s office is hosting two public meetings for comment on this proposal to cut contract rates February 6 and February 9.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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