It’s estimated that four out of five criminal defendants in Minnesota use public defenders because they’re too poor to hire a lawyer. To keep up with their caseload, public defenders work long hours under stressful circumstances, but their wages are much lower than a private practice attorney, or even attorneys working for the State Attorney General.

Workloads for Minnesota’s state public defenders are too high and affect their ability to represent clients, according to a 2010 report from the Minnesota Office of the Legislative Auditor. (AJEL/Pixabay)

Amy Kantorowicz has been an investigator with the Goodhue County Public Defender’s office for nearly 20 years but works two additional jobs to pay the bills. She said, “I think those individuals that stick it out for the long haul, I think it really shows that their heart is in it, but it’s hard. It’s hard to have invested so much time and energy into my education as well as a career and still not be able to make it on one job.”

The American Bar Association recommends that public defenders handle no more than 400 cases per year, while those in Minnesota manage at least 500.

Stephen Hanlon, general counsel of the National Association for Public Defense, said 80-percent of America’s criminal justice system is now public defense, suggesting a breakdown of the system. He believes some apathy is involved because a majority of public-defender clients are poor, people of color, or both. “They just need a reasonable shot. They don’t need a Cadillac defense, they just need a reasonable defense, and when public defenders have between two and five times as much work as they can handle competently, terrible things happen,” he said.

Teamsters Union 320 will represent the public defender’s office when contract negotiations begin in June. Principal Officer Brian Aldes said they’ll advocate for more competitive pay and reduced caseloads. He added, “The office doesn’t have the ability to investigate all public-defender cases, and the indigent, impoverished, poor people deserve the equal representation as any of us do.”

Reformers say public defenders could spend more time on serious criminal cases, if those related to homelessness, drug addiction and mental illness were decriminalized. Workday Minnesota reports that 95 percent of the country’s criminal cases are plea-bargained.