As Montana lawmakers begin hearings this week to figure out how to fund public defenders in the state, attorneys say they don’t have enough resources, and their caseloads are rising.
Today was the first of several days of hearings for lawmakers to receive input about how to fund the Office of State Public Defender. The public defender's office provides legal counsel and representation to people who can’t afford an attorney themselves.
Nicole Gallagher, with the public defender's office in Billings, says, as lawmakers look to find ways to trim spending during a time when the state’s budget is already tight, she encourages them to see how overworked public attorneys are with their current level of funding.
"I don’t have caseloads that I can maintain," says Gallagher. "And it is vitally important to me to give good representation. That’s why I’m there. I don’t make good money at this job, so what I need is personal satisfaction that I am doing legally, at the minimum, what I am required to do."
Several other attorneys from across the state also testified before lawmakers about the difficulty of providing good legal counsel while juggling caseload burdens. Some said those caseloads exceed the limit prescribed by the American Bar Association.
Officials with the public defender's office say the state has seen an increase in criminal cases and cases of child abuse and neglect over the past few years. According to a report by the Legislative Fiscal Division, Public Defender workload of abuse and neglect cases has increased 50 percent since fiscal year 2014.