The stairs of the Montana Capitol in Helena, Montana (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).
The Montana Office of Public Defenders announced on Thursday that is opening negotiations with the public defender union to address pay disparities in an effort to resolve case backlog and staffing shortages.
“Providing critically needed resources to address some of OPD’s long-standing pay issues, today’s actions mark the most significant investment in public defense in Montana since OPD was founded in 2005,” the department said in a press release announcing the move.
The inability to hire public defenders, specifically in Yellowstone County, has paralyzed the department in recent months leading to a significant case backlog. Yellowstone County District Court Judge Donald Harris twice held the office in contempt of court over unassigned cases in the county. The office challenged Harris’ decision to the Montana Supreme Court in late March, arguing Harris exceeded his authority. When the office appeared before a legislative committee in September, it had 691 unassigned cases across the state, with about 40 percent of cases existing in Billings alone.
“With this plan, we are taking substantive steps to improve the public defense system in Montana. Our goal is to make public defender compensation more in line with similar attorneys so we can recruit and retain well-qualified attorneys to serve Montanans,” OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist said in a press release. “Making prudent, responsible investments in public defense is an investment in our justice system and in ensuring our constitutionally guaranteed rights are upheld.”
To help with staffing issues, the department said it is raising its contract attorney rate to $71 per hour. Since 2018, the department has been paying contracted attorneys just $56 an hour to contract attorneys — a third of the federal contract rate for public defenders. The department also faces high turnover as its attorneys are paid $13,000 less per year than other state Department of Administration lawyers.
“We’ve seen the positive impact the contract rate increase has had in Billings and are very excited to be able to offer that rate statewide,” Brett Schandelson, OPD’s Development and Operations Bureau Chief said in the release.
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