HELENA, Mont. — A panel of lawmakers and lawyers forwarded the Montana Legislature a set of bills on Monday that would reorganize the Office of the State Public Defender by creating a cabinet-level director to oversee the agency.
The Task Force on State Public Defender Operations, created by the state Legislature to review the agency that represents poor criminal defendants, recommended removing agency oversight from the Public Defender Commission and giving it to the governor.
The change, if approved by the Montana Legislature when it meets in January, would amount to creating the 17th department of state government. The state constitution allows up to 20 departments.
District Judge James Haynes, the task force member who suggested the change, said a director would have the authority to take charge and train stronger trial and appellate attorneys. The governor would pick a director from three nominees chosen by the Public Defender Commission, which would become an advisory panel.
Currently, a chief public defender, an appellate defender and a conflict manager each runs a section of the agency and is answerable to the Public Defender Commission. Under the current system, many of the staff attorneys are not well trained and competent managers are lacking, Haynes said.
“I think there needs to be a whole shake-up,” he said.
The Office of the State Public Defender was created a more than a decade ago. Its caseload is high, and the office has suffered from a high turnover rate as attorneys burn out. State lawmakers created the task force to examine how the agency operates and to recommend changes in the form of bills to be introduced in the upcoming legislative session.
In advancing the new director position, the task force rejected the public defenders’ office’s strategic plan to keep the Public Defender Commission in charge of the agency and create a chief administrator of the agency who is answerable to the commission.
That structure would ensure the independence of the agency and keep out the politics of a cabinet position, supporters of the plan said.
“There has been very little evidence presented that this is a management problem, fundamentally,” task force member James Holden, a Great Falls defense attorney, said in a failed attempt to advance the legislation. “We have excessive caseloads.”
The task force also recommended creating a “holistic defense pilot program” that would look at the underlying causes that bring people into criminal justice system, and seek to reduce recidivism. The program calls for a team to include a public defender, a social worker, an investigator and support staff to provide defendants with both legal and social support services.
In addition, the task force advanced a bill requiring the state Department of Revenue to collect costs imposed by courts for public defender services. It also recommended that the state Department of Public Health and Humans Services make the determination now made by the public defenders’ office of whether a defendant is eligible to receive the agency’s services.