The Director of Montana’s Office of the Public Defender has been fined $10,000 for failing to immediately assign lawyers to those charged with crimes and cannot afford one- a move the public Defender’s Office says is unwarranted and is currently beyond their control.
District Judge Donald Harris of Yellowstone County blasted OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist for failing to assign a lawyer to defendants within 2-3 days, which is the standard set by OPD policies.
Currently, with over 650 open cases unassigned since July 31, this means there are hundreds of Montanans who are languishing in jail for weeks and months without any representation, some of who may be innocent but can’t afford a lawyer to make bond reduction arguments. This, he says, is a miscarriage of justice.
Judge Harris was also concerned that violent criminals may go free without a trial due to the technicalities of not getting a speedy trial, noting:
“What I’m here to tell you is that the Office of the State Public Defender’s failure to properly assign counsel is creating situations where it may be required constitutionally for a judge’s judicial district to release violent offenders into this community without trial.”
In short; the OPD is utterly and completely failing their clients.
For their part, the Office of the Public Defender acknowledges that there have been delays, but pushed back by saying they are facing challenges beyond their control, including being chronically understaffed, being underpaid, and not having enough resources to properly represent their clients.
Peter Habein, OPD’s Lawyer, told the judge that “To call it a perfect storm, might be an understatement”, explaining that in order to do their job properly, having an active caseload of over 8000 cases, they would need at least 43 full-time lawyers. But they’ve only been assigned 31, and because they are so underpaid, they only have 23, having 8 vacancies that simply cannot fill.
This forces the lawyers to take on so many cases that they frequently can’t do justice for their clients, with one Billings lawyer handling over 320 cases. This results in the need to settle 99% of them with a plea agreement in order to avoid a trial they don’t have time for- a move which may not be best for their clients.
Furthermore, when they contract cases out to other attorneys to handle some of the backlogs, they only have a budget to pay $56 an hour, a third of the $150 per hour that is the federal contract rate, ensuring that most lawyers aren’t interested, as they can bill a much higher rate on their own and would be taking a massive paycut.
Despite these realities, Harris was inflexible with his pronouncement, saying that they’d better figure it out, and that he would brook no excuses.