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'We are exhausted': Minnesota public defenders say low salaries, high caseloads fuel burnout

Vulnerable and indigent Minnesotans, particularly people of color, faced the ramifications of the staffing issues among the state's public defense offices.

Minnesota senators meet early in the 2018 session. But the final six weeks will be the busy time for Minnesota lawmakers. The Legislature must adjourn by May 21. Don Davis / Forum News Service
Minnesota senators meet early in the 2018 session. But the final six weeks will be the busy time for Minnesota lawmakers. The Legislature must adjourn by May 21.
Don Davis / Forum News Service

ST. PAUL — Minnesota public defenders and Legal Aid attorneys on Tuesday, Jan. 11, told a panel of state lawmakers that low salaries and expanding caseloads were fueling widespread resignations.

And the impact came largely at the expense of indigent and vulnerable Minnesotans who don't have enough money to pay for private legal representation, they said.

The House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee asked the groups to discuss what they were facing on the ground. And board and agency heads said they'd struggled to hire new attorneys and to keep current employees on staff amid the pandemic.

Longstanding underfunding to the offices compared to what they'd need to be fully staffed, along with outdated requirements for caseloads and mandatory minimum sentences, led to a resignation rate of 11.6% among district public defenders offices in 2021, Minnesota Board of Public Defense Chief Administrator Kevin Kajer said.

“The great resignation has hit us,” Kajer said.

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Representatives from the board said it would take a $50 million boost from the state to get staffing up to the national standard. And that likely wouldn't be enough to ensure Minnesotans who work with a public defender get the time they need to adequately investigate and argue their case.

Ahead of Tuesday's hearing, Teamsters Local 320, the union that represents more than 700 Minnesota Board of Public Defense employees and support staff, released survey results that showed a vast discontent with the Board and the working conditions it created for employees.

Eighty-four percent of those surveyed agreed that the board had failed to support staff and wasn't able to meet its own best practices for quality representation.

“I know I speak for many of my colleagues when I say we are exhausted. The pandemic and the backlog have illuminated problems brewing for years,” First Judicial District Assistant Public Defender Brenda Lightbody said. “While (we're) told that we’re justice partners, all too often that sounds like an oxymoron of epic proportions.”

Cara Gilbert, an assistant public defender in the Second Judicial District, said she and many of her colleagues struggled to manage financially with their current salaries. And her clients bore the impact.

“My clients, our most vulnerable citizens, primarily children of color, bear the brunt and the real cost,” Gilbert said. “If you don’t pay competitively, you can’t fill positions and keep attorneys."

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, chairs the House committee and said she would put forward a supplemental budget request that addressed the concerns raised in the committee. The state has posted a more than $8 billion budget surplus ahead of the 2022 legislative session.

Lawmakers are set to take up debates about how best to spend that money, along with a host of other issues, when they return to St. Paul for the 2022 legislative session on Jan. 31.

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