A survey of Minnesota's public defense attorneys and staff found widespread discontentment with their working conditions and leadership, plus concerns about the impact on clients.
"Within the last couple of years, we feel our clients are suffering because the [Minnesota Board of Public Defense] has a retention problem," said Ginny Barron, who has worked as a public defender in the Fifth Judicial District for 10 years. "Morale right now is the worst I have seen it in ... 10 years."
Barron, who plans to speak at Tuesday's hearing, said the issues predate the COVID-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated them. Barron and the union said high caseloads, inadequate staffing levels and low wages are taking a toll on staff and clients.
The Minnesota Board of Public Defense, which oversees the state's public defenders, said it has not seen the survey results.
"We have been telling folks for a long time that our staff is overworked and this is compounded by the COVID pandemic," said Kevin Kajer, the board's chief administrator.
According to the board's website, Minnesota public defenders handle more than 150,000 cases a year, representing clients who can't afford to hire an attorney.
Union and board negotiators have been locked in contract negotiations and are in mediation. The union said it made contract proposals that would help hire and retain staff, but that board leadership "is refusing to consider these requests." During one negotiation meeting, Barron said, the board's representatives left without informing the union's negotiators.
"Tuesday's hearing is employees' latest attempt to voice their concerns around harsh working conditions that are putting in jeopardy the constitutional rights of their indigent clients," the union said in a news release.
The union's survey of public defenders found that 70 percent who responded said board leadership and managers created work conditions that made it difficult or impossible to meet their ethical standards. Among attorneys and staff who responded, 84% said they "strongly agree or agree" that board leadership failed to adequately support frontline staff and meet their own best practices.
Eighty percent of attorneys said clients spend a prolonged amount of time in jail. A majority of attorneys said that high caseloads and insufficient support prevented them from performing basic duties for their clients, such as fielding client questions before court, returning client calls within 24 hours and reviewing evidence in their cases, among other issues.
"The attorneys and the support staff who are on the front lines are doing the best they can ... but the unfortunate working conditions that are in place are preventing us from doing our jobs and are hurting our clients," Barron said. "We have an ethical obligation to fight for our clients."
Barron said low pay is a key challenge to hiring and keeping attorneys. Barron said an attorney fresh out of law school could expect to make about $65,800 as a public defender in Blue Earth County while someone with the same qualifications could make about $20,000 more working for the prosecutor's office.
"They're not addressing the retention problem," Barron said of board leadership. "They're allowing the [pay] disparity... to continue to grow."
The union criticized State Public Defender Bill Ward, who leads the board, for failing to request more money from the Legislature for the board's budget. Kajer said the board submitted its biennial budget request in October 2020 when the state was facing a $7 billion shortfall and that the union had supported the request at the time.
"The board requested $19 million in new funding for hiring of additional staff, salary and insurance cost increases for existing staff, funding to hire contract attorneys to assist in with the backlog of cases," Kajer said. "Ultimately, it received $15 million in new funding for the biennium."
The cumulative affect of inadequate staffing and funding, Barron said, is that managers are asking public defenders to spend less time on their cases in order to shoulder the workload. That means attorneys are being asked not to review all evidence in a case, she said, or to tell clients to represent themselves, hire a private attorney or to waive their constitutional rights to have court hearings and trials held at specified intervals, which means more time spent in jail waiting for their court appearances.
"As much as it breaks my heart to say so, absolutely I have questioned whether I can find a way to do this job I love in another form," Barron said when asked whether she had considered quitting.