Minn. public defenders seek to reduce caseloadsMINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Public defenders in Minnesota said Wednesday they are stretched too thin, and they have asked the State Judicial Council to help reduce their caseloads by moving nonviolent crimes, such as petty theft and misdemeanor trespassing, out of the courtroom.
By: AMY FORLITI,Associated Press Writer, Worthington Daily Globe
MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Public defenders in Minnesota said Wednesday they are stretched too thin, and they have asked the State Judicial Council to help reduce their caseloads by moving nonviolent crimes, such as petty theft and misdemeanor trespassing, out of the courtroom.
The Minnesota Board of Public Defense said it faces caseloads that are nearly double the level recommended by the American Bar Association. In August, the board proposed that certain nonviolent offenses — like loitering or livestock rustling — should be placed on the list of crimes that require fines instead of mandatory court appearances.
"If an offense creates a low level of risk to the public and could be properly sanctioned by mailing in a check, the offender should be allowed to hand a check to the clerk in the courtroom, saving court and public defender time," according to the board's August request to the State Judicial Council.
The State Judicial Council is expected to take up the issue at its regular meeting Thursday.
John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, said he opposes the recommendations because all of the stakeholders haven't had a chance to weigh in.
"I can appreciate the financial constraints that the public defenders are under," Kingrey said. "I do think it's incumbent upon all of us to prove we are being as efficient as possible. ... But I'd like to see what the business community thinks of some of this stuff."
"The cattle rustling may not be a big deal in the Twin Cities, but guess what? In the rural areas, it is," he added.
The state's public defense budget has seen back-to-back budget cuts, and statewide, public defenders' offices have lost about 15 percent of their staff over the last three years through a combination of layoffs, leaves and attrition. John Stuart, Minnesota's state public defender, said public defense attorneys are stretched to the point of breaking and it's time to prioritize.
"We don't have enough staff to handle cases like stealing a candy bar, theft of a pickle slice from a salad bar, barking dogs ... all of which we've had this summer," he said.
He pointed to one public defender who has two jury trials coming up: One for a defendant accused of leaving a fishing line unattended; another for a defendant accused of burning a tire. Those cases, he said, could've been handled with fines — and if the defendant is innocent, he or she could appear before a judge, rather than have a full jury trial.
The public defenders are also asking that all Department of Natural Resources misdemeanor offenses be added to the list of those sanctioned by fines. Colleen Coyne, DNR communications director, said the majority of DNR misdemeanors are already on that list, and mandatory court appearances in these cases are unusual.
There have been other efforts to reduce caseloads for public defenders over the years. Public defenders recently stopped representing parents in child-protection cases. Last month, public defenders in southern Minnesota asked a Steele County District Court judge to reduce their caseloads, but that request was denied.