Big Sky Roundup

Montana Office of the Public Defender aims to streamline representation for Indigent clients

By: - January 9, 2023 12:31 pm
The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023.

The Montana state Capitol in Helena on Jan. 2, 2023. (Photo by Blair Miller, Daily Montanan)

The Office of the Public Defender will better serve citizens in times of crisis with House Bill 111, Rep. Jodee Etchart, R-Billings, said Monday.

In a short hearing with no opponents, sponsor Etchart said the bill would eliminate unnecessary financial qualification procedures in a couple of cases where they aren’t necessary.

Brian Smith with the Office of the Public Defender elaborated and estimated the changes would save roughly $20,000. In cases of dependency and neglect, he said sometimes parents aren’t available to fill out eligibility forms.

So judges might have parents without representation in court.

“Judges don’t like to have unrepresented parties in these proceedings,” Smith said.

When a case reaches a stage at which point parental rights could be terminated, Smith said judges want to appoint counsel, but if the Office of the Public Defender hasn’t qualified the person, a conflict is created, Smith said. So he said OPD has to ask the judge to rescind the appointment.

But he said there’s no question those defendants need help.

“These individuals qualify for our services,” Smith said. “We’re not representing people who do not qualify in dependency and neglect cases.”

The bill would affect involuntary commitment cases as well.

Smith said those cases move too quickly for the Office of the Public Defender to qualify a respondent, and it’s unreasonable to ask many of them to manage the documents.

“We’re also asking people who are very mentally ill to fill out paperwork,” Smith said.

ACLU of Montana’s Maggie Bornstein testified in support of the changes. She said the bill would alleviate red tape for people who need representation.

“We believe that quick access to qualified counsel is vital for indigent defendants in our criminal legal system,” Bornstein said.

The committee will take action in a future meeting.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. In Montana since 1998, she loves hiking in Glacier National Park, wandering the grounds of the Archie Bray and sitting on her front porch with friends. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana. She worked there from 2006 to 2020. As a Missoulian reporter, she was named a co-fellow by the Education Writers Association to report on a series about economic mobility; grantee of the Society of Environmental Journalists for a project on conservation from the U.S. to Africa; and Kiplinger Fellow in Digital Media and Public Affairs Journalism. She previously worked at the Great Falls Tribune and Missoula Independent, and she earned her master’s in journalism from the University of Montana. She lives in Missoula with her husband, Brock, who is also her favorite chef, and her pup, Henry, who is her favorite adventure companion. She believes she deserves to wear the T-shirt with this saying: “World’s most mediocre runner.”