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Judge fines public defenders office for unassigned cases

September 14, 2021 GMT

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Yellowstone County judge has held the director of Montana’s Office of the Public Defender in contempt of court and fined the agency up to $10,000 for failing to immediately assign public defenders in criminal cases he has referred to the office.

District Court Judge Donald Harris issued an order in August for OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist to appear before him after he learned 663 cases in Yellowstone County District Court had not been signed to a public defender as of July 31.

“This problem, in this particular district, has persisted for months,” Harris said during Monday’s hearing, “and it appears to the court that the problem is only getting worse.”

Harris fined the office $500 per case on his docket where a public defender hasn’t been assigned and estimated that totaled between 10 and 20 cases.

Harris said some defendants could be innocent, others aren’t receiving timely bail reduction hearings and are sitting in jail, and some who committed violent crimes could have their cases dismissed because of a lack of speedy trial, The Billings Gazette reported.

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The Office of Public Defender that serves Yellowstone County and the surrounding area has eight openings in an office that is allocated 31.5 attorneys while juggling 8,020 cases as of Aug. 20, officials said.

Brian Smith, an administrator with the Billings office, said high caseloads and pay that’s $13,000 less than other state-employed attorneys earn makes it difficult to recruit and retain attorneys. The office pays $56 an hour to outside attorneys who serve as contract public defenders, but those same attorneys can receive $150 an hour as a federal public defender, making it difficult to find contract attorneys to take some of the extra caseload.

Harris was sympathetic to the dilemmas faced by the public defenders office, but said the state is still obligated to provide legal representation to those who can’t afford it.

“There simply has to be a solution to this. It’s a money solution, and I know the money is there,” Harris said.

The judge ruled that any defendant he refers to the public defenders office must have a public defender assigned within the two- to three-day standard set by the office.