County to pay for public defenders
WORTHINGTON -- Nobles County commissioners adopted a resolution on Tuesday to continue providing public defense attorneys for Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) and Child in need of Protective Services (CHIPS) cases, despite action taken by the Minnesota State Legislature earlier this year to terminate the use of attorneys for such cases.
Judge Jeffrey Flynn of the Fifth Judicial District appeared before commissioners on Tuesday to request funding, which could amount to $25,000 to $30,000 in 2009.
Flynn said the state's decision to cut $3.8 million from the public defender budget this year forced the State Board of Public Defense to terminate 53 public defender positions on June 5. Public defenders were no longer allowed to serve clients in TPR and CHIPS cases as of July 8.
"That left us in a lurch -- the court systems and the counties," said Flynn, adding that attorneys will now need to be hired to serve those clients. "If this isn't an unfunded mandate, I've never seen one."
From 2005 through 2007, Nobles County paid about $29,000 in fees for public defense services, but that was for a range of cases from commitments to child support, sex offender, CHIPS and TPR, he said. In 2007, there were 27 cases filed between CHIPS and TPR, and projections are that number could double in 2008, considering there are already 27 filed cases filed for CHIPS or TPR since Jan. 1.
"We don't know how many of these cases are going to be filed," Flynn said.
The $30,000 estimate could be high, or it could be inadequate depending on the caseload. The amount is based on an hourly rate of $65 paid to public defenders, which Flynn said was considerably lower than what other counties will have to pay. The statewide average is $80 to $90 per hour.
About a third of the state's 87 counties have taken action on the public defender situation, Flynn said Tuesday. Twenty counties had agreed to pay the attorney fees for the remainder of this year and future years; five counties voted to pay for the rest of 2008, but not in future years; and four counties voted not to pay anything. Another 16 counties had received the information and had not yet made a decision, while the remainder of the counties had yet to discuss the issue.
Flynn said Cottonwood, Jackson and Pipestone counties had all voted to pay for the public defender services this year and future years.
"Based on my experience, I think it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish not to fund these attorneys," Flynn told commissioners. "Parents need someone they can trust, who they think is on their side, which is their lawyer."
Flynn said if parents don't get the advice they need from an attorney, the county will likely see out-of-home placement costs "go through the roof."
"On the backs of these children is not the place to fight this war," he said.
Nobles County Attorney Gordon Moore said there is money in the courts budget to fund the public defenders for the remainder of this year.
"I am recommending that you do fund this," Flynn added. "I think it's going to be financially palatable for us to do this."
Commissioner Diane Thier said she realized the need for public defenders to continue providing services for TPR and CHIPS cases, but she recommended toeing the line so the use of public defenders isn't abused.
Flynn suggested the screener-collector in the courts system could be involved to screen individuals requesting a public defender to see if they indeed qualify for the service and then collect money from those who are able to pay something.
In addition to approving the resolution, commissioners agreed to write a strongly worded letter to their legislators to request the funding be reinstated as soon as possible.