Minnesota public defenders will receive historic pay raises, ranging from 26% to 72% depending on seniority, under a tentative agreement reached on Monday between state officials and the union representing public defenders.
The raises for roughly 470 attorneys across the state come after decades of wage stagnation, which has contributed to high turnover and a yawning pay gap between public defenders and prosecutors, who are largely employed by counties.
“This is a big, big raise. There’s no doubt about it.” said Bob Kolstad, an attorney in the Hennepin County Public Defender’s Office and union steward with the Teamsters Local 320.
“Some people are gonna read this and say, ‘What the f***.’ It’s crazy, right … But the reason it’s a lot is because we’ve been underpaid for two decades,” Kolstad said.
The new salaries will bring public defender pay in line with those of prosecutors, which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have argued is necessary to balance the scales of justice.
The salary of a first year public defender will increase from $70,146 to $88,380 beginning in August under the tentative agreement, which must be approved by union members and the state Board of Public Defense. Senior attorneys, who earn between $91,917 and $123,093, will see the biggest jump in their salaries — to $158,500.
Some 200 support staff like paralegals also won significant pay increases — averaging about 30% — in a contract already approved by their union and the state.
The wage increases are possible because the Legislature voted earlier this year to increase the budget for the Board of Public Defense by nearly 50% to more than $150 million a year.
The larger budget was approved with the intent of increasing public defender salaries and reducing caseloads for public defenders, which have long exceeded ethical standards. The tentative agreement includes a provision requiring Board of Public Defense leaders to meet with union leaders quarterly to discuss workloads.
Kolstad attributes the victory to working members of the Teamsters Local 320, who have spent years trying to win pay parity with prosecutors.
In March 2022, public defenders voted to strike for the first time in state history, which could have sent hundreds of attorneys to the picket lines. With public defenders representing about 90% of people charged with crimes, a strike threatened to bring much of the justice system to a halt as courts confronted a backlog of cases from the pandemic.
Public defenders ultimately called off the strike and approved a new contract with only moderate pay increases, with the caveat that the Board of Public Defense would reopen negotiations over wages if the Legislature increased their budget.
The Legislature was poised to do so in 2022, but the funding fell through. The proposal was reintroduced this year after Democrats took control of the Senate and passed it.
The effort to increase the public defense budget was led by Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, who worked as a prosecutor in the Hennepin County Attorney’s Office.
She challenged Minnesota State Public Defender Bill Ward to present the Legislature with a budget request that would fully fund the Board of Public Defense. He ultimately requested an additional $115 million over the next two years, and the Legislature appropriated $95 million.
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