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Public defenders and legal aid attorneys plead for funding boost amid rising demand

By: - January 12, 2022 1:57 pm

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Public defenders and legal aid attorneys are asking legislators to increase funding for their programs, citing overworked staff, pandemic-related backlogs and longer-term budget issues.

Members of the House Judiciary Finance and Civil Law Committee heard testimony Tuesday from public defenders and civil legal aid attorneys — who represent low-income clients in non-criminal cases — about how attorneys in those fields are leaving their jobs in droves, often due to a combination of low pay and increased workload during the pandemic. The groups, like many others across the state, are hoping for a funding boost in the upcoming legislative session as lawmakers decide what to do with the state’s $7.7 billion projected budget surplus.  

The average starting salary for legal aid attorneys in Minnesota this year will be $60,000, Dori Rapaport, executive director of Legal Aid Service of Northeastern Minnesota, told lawmakers. That’s lower than public defenders, whose average starting salary is about $65,000, and far below what attorneys make in the private sector, she said. 

Nearly one-third of all civil legal aid staff quit between 2020 and 2021, Rapaport said. At the same time, demand for services related to employment, education and domestic legal issues rose during the pandemic, she said.

Last year, 55% of eligible Minnesotans who applied for legal aid service were turned away due to lack of resources, she said.

The Minnesota Legal Services Coalition is asking for an additional $4.3 million in state money, which would bring their state funding total to about $22.5 million. The organization’s total budget is $50.9 million. 

“We have to move our salary average to $65,000 if we want to stop the bleeding and stop the turnover,” Rapaport said.

Kevin Kajer, chief administrator for the Minnesota Board of Public Defense, said public defenders are facing similar challenges. In 2021, 56 public defenders quit — nearly double the number in 2019 — and fewer attorneys are applying for open positions, he said.

Minnesota would need an additional 149 public defenders and 100 support staff to meet the national caseload standard of 400 cases per attorney, said State Public Defender William Ward. 

The state Board of Public Defense is requesting a $50 million increase in state funding — roughly 45% of the agency’s current budget. Hiring enough staff to meet national caseload standards would account for about $29 million of that, Ward said.

“We’ve never been funded to get to the national standard, ever,” Ward said. “Cases are falling through the cracks because we don’t have sufficient staff to meet the needs of our clients.”

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Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.