The Office of the State Public Defender made a last-minute pitch Monday to a legislative appropriations committee for additional funding to try to squash the caseload pileup induced by the COVID-19 pandemic and contracting woes.
The request to the appropriations subcommittee seeks an additional $850,000 for the upcoming biennium. Of that, $750,000 would go toward contracting out 100 cases treading water in the courts, OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist told the committee.
The 2021 legislative session is expected to wrap up by the end of the week, and lawmakers plan to finalize the state budget in House Bill 2 in the coming days. It's unclear where the funding would come from.
The state public defenders office had so far made it through the session without a supplemental funding request to finish out the current fiscal year — the first time the agency could say so in 15 years. This additional funding would be applied to the upcoming 2022-2023 biennium.
While the courts put trials on hold through much of last year during the COVDI-19 pandemic, OPD trial division administrator Brian Smith told the committee Monday new charges have still been filed with the courts. Additionally, contracting attorneys on a $56 hourly rate has been a troublesome hurdle. The rate for federal cases, Smith said, is more attractive to contract attorneys, at roughly $150 per hour. The $750,000 to contract out 100 cases would raise the rate to roughly $75 per hour. The additional $100,000 would go toward courtroom equipment to allow attorneys to be more efficient, Lindquist said.
Smith painted a grim picture for the committee during Monday's hour-long hearing. In Billings, the office has five vacant positions, while one public defender there has 500 cases.
"We're reaching a crisis point in Billings," Smith told the committee.
Several committee members received the request with some skepticism. The panel had already added roughly $400,000 for caseload growth costs if the new filings warranted the funding. Lindquist said the funding request would address cases already in the system, not an unforeseen growth in cases.
Sen. David Howard, R-Park City, asked why the agency hadn't shuffled attorneys to areas of greater need, even temporarily.
"If we transfer people to Billings, all we’re doing is creating another problem in another jurisdiction," Smith said.
The House of Representatives on Monday voted to take House Bill 693, the bill that plugs the justice-related funding into the state budget, to a conference committee where lawmakers will debate the final details.