Sitting in a box on the floor of public defender David Hermerding's office in downtown Brainerd are 85 court cases waiting to be reassigned.
A contract attorney was handling the cases, but funding for the attorney's services has run out. The cases now will be divvied out to five full-time and three part-time public defenders at the Brainerd office, each of whom already is working on 175-200 cases.
"It's very hard," Hermerding, managing attorney of the Public Defender's Office in Brainerd, said of his office's attempt to keep on top of the increasing criminal cases his office is handling. "There's no more money to hire anyone."
The plight of the Public Defender's Office in Brainerd is echoed across the state -- to the point that the Board of Public Defense and the State Public Defender have filed a petition with the Minnesota Supreme Court seeking help to address what they see as an "unprecedented crisis in the provision of public defense services."
At the root of the problem is funding. Like all state agencies, the Public Defender Office's budget has been cut in response to the state's budget shortfall. In the past two years about 40 jobs have been cut from the State Board of Public Defense, including 20 announced Friday.
However, the numbers of cases being handled by public defenders across the state consistently have risen in the past five years -- to the point that the public defense attorneys are overwhelmed.
"We're so underfunded, understaffed, cases are being delayed," said Hermerding, whose office covers public defense in Crow Wing and Aitkin counties. "There's no possible way we can keep up with the caseloads coming in."
The standard caseload the Board of Public Defense wants for public defenders in Minnesota to handle is 400 per year. In reality, those numbers are almost doubled. In 2002 each public defender in Minnesota averaged 757 cases, 795 in 2001, 864 in 2002, and a projected 915 in 2003. Hermerding said in Crow Wing and Aitkin counties the number of cases his attorneys handle are almost triple the state standard.
"And state-wide, we're probably one of the most understaffed offices," said Hermerding. "We're one of the hot spots, and it's getting to the point it's going to start shutting down the court system."
In its petition to the Supreme Court, the Board of Public Defense cited the resignation of Rockwell Wells, who left the Public Defender's Office in Brainerd in January. In his resignation letter Wells said he handled 727 cases in the 11 months leading up to his resignation.
"The anxiety, stress and depression brought on by my caseload eventually convinced me that my job was killing me," wrote Wells in his resignation letter, which was cited by the Board of Public Defense's petition.
To help stem the increased caseloads, the Board of Public Defense and the State Public Defender made several requests of the Supreme Court.
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