Sunday, October 23, 2011

Public defender pay lags behind other state lawyers

Attorneys who get their first job out of college with the state generally start at $40,000 a year, but if you’re in the Office of the Public Defender, the chance to increase your pay with experience is less than those of other government lawyers, a survey of salaries showed last year.

Also, the public-defender system, when it has to hire outside lawyer on contract, pays them $60 an hour - considerably less than the $165 hourly rate paid by the federal government to lawyers hired to defend indigent criminal defendants.

These discrepancies are one thing that officials with Montana's public-defender system mention when they say it lacks adequate resources.

They also say the system, which has about 115 lawyers and 20 investigators to cover the entire state, may need more personnel to meet the demands of representing poor people in criminal and family law cases, as dictated by the Legislature.

Fritz Gillespie, a Helena lawyer who chairs the Public Defender Commission that oversees the system, says attorneys who head regional offices may have to shed some of their caseload, to respond to criticism that the system needs more active management.

"But where are we going to put their caseloads?" he asks. "If we don't have the funding to put more people on the job, then that just increases the stress and pressure on the line attorneys."

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Montana issued a report on the system this week, highlighting widespread problems, including overworked and undertrained attorneys with unduly high caseloads.

The system's attorneys earn anywhere from $40,000 to $71,400 a year, depending on experience. Except for the starting salary, Gillespie says that level is about $4,000 to $7,000 less than attorneys in other government agencies can make.

The system has a $23 million budget this year, an increase of about $3 million over last year.

Sen. Jim Shockley, R-Victor, who sponsored a 2011 bill that limited the caseload for the system's top managers, says he might support more funding for the system - but not until it "got their act together" on management flaws noted in the ACLU report and an earlier report.

He also says the system should make more of an effort to collect at least some payment from clients, who, while poor, sometimes can afford minimal fees.

By Mike Dennison, Gazette State Bureau

Source: Billings Gazette

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