HELENA – Jenny Kaleczyc sits at her desk on the third floor of a downtown Helena building with an overflowing inbox and fresh stack of folders – 10 more cases to add to her current workload of 75.
“We lie awake worrying about what we couldn’t get to, and wake up in the middle of the night making our to-do list for the next morning,” the regional deputy public defender said.
Her office isn’t unique. The other 13 public defender offices across Montana struggle to make do with limited resources and an ever-increasing workload as they represent low-income individuals in court.
This week, they are asking the Legislature for more money from House Bill 2, the state’s main two-year, $9 billion budget bill. It passed the House last month, and senators are now busy hashing out its details.
“The bottom line of what we’re going to tell them is that the constitutional duty of the state of Montana will fail,” said Richard “Fritz” Gillespie, chairman of the state’s Public Defender Commission.
Originally, the state office asked for 77 new full-time employees. Gov. Steve Bullock reduced that number to 37 in his budget request. The version of the budget passed out of the House gave the office eight new FTEs and a $5.7 million increase in funding over the next two years.
Those in charge of the state office say that increase won’t solve the problems that plague the system’s attorneys and clients. They say overbooked schedules mean lawyers cannot give clients the attention they deserve, which creates a greater potential for mistakes or wrongful convictions.
“Individuals languish in jail longer than they need to, which costs money while they are sitting there,” said Wade Zolynski, chief appellate defender. “When you don’t have the time to file a bond reduction motion or to do the types of motions that you are supposed to be doing, those things are either delayed significantly, or they don’t get done at all.”
But the public defender office is just one piece of the pie. Five other agencies are vying for funds in its section of the budget.
“There are a lot of needs out there,” said Rep. Steve Gibson, R-East Helena. “Public defenders are one of them.”
Gibson heads the appropriations subcommittee on justice issues. He said lawmakers are juggling a number of additional funding requests at the same time government agencies ask for more money. Some of those measures include bills to better-fund public schools, state employee salaries and the state pension system.
He and others familiar with the office say it has been shortchanged since it was established in 2006. Public defenders also must take on civil cases, even though the attorneys were initially intended to handle only criminal cases.
“Even if the Legislature were to give them everything they ask for, that’s not going to solve the problem,” Gibson said.
He added that lawmakers are more eager to give agencies money when they can see that departments have taken steps to become more efficient.
That’s why he’s supporting an effort by Rep. Kimberly Dudik, D-Missoula, to fund an interim study of the system’s problem when the session adjourns.
“It looks at staffing issues and it looks at pay issues, but it also looks at how the organization could possibly be reorganized so that it wouldn’t just be a more money issue, but it would be an efficiency issue,” Dudik told the House Judiciary Committee last week.
Dudik suggested that instead of taking on a broad range of clients, public defenders could focus on specific types of cases.
Gibson said the public defender office could work more effectively if it did not have to accept certain cases, such as those related to neglect or crimes that warrant little or no jail time. He added that the governor’s office could shift attorneys from other departments to the public defender office to ease the burden on current employees.
Other groups are also keeping a close eye on the office, including the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana.
“If they continue to ignore their constitutional obligation, it will lead to litigation that, if favorable to the people in need of indigent defense, will cost the state millions of dollars that could be better spent in other ways,” said Scott Crichton, executive director of the ACLU of Montana.
His organization has already sued the state once over inadequacies in the public defender system. That lawsuit resulted in the establishment seven years ago of the state public defender office that now oversees 13 offices across Montana.
Kaleczyc and the 15 people who work in her regional office aren’t in it for the money, she said. They put up with overbooked schedules for as long as they can, but often the $43,000 starting salary doesn’t cover their bills and student loans.
Her office faces a high turnover rate, as public defenders move on to higher paying jobs in government or with law firms throughout Montana.
“We have some great new attorneys,” Kaleczyc said. “But I fear that if we don’t fix these problems, we are going to lose them too.”