The Potluck

Public defenders poised to get $50 million windfall from Legislature

By: - April 1, 2022 2:33 pm

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A key Republican state senator favors increasing the annual budget for public defenders in the state by 50%, signaling a likely windfall for a chronically underfunded system with high turnover.

“Public defenders have had a long season of short shrift when it comes to salaries. They are not compensated equally to prosecutors. And we’re trying to address that,” said state Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, during a Friday news conference.

Limmer, who chairs the Senate judiciary committee, said he would include $50 million for public defense in the public safety bill, which will be taken up by the whole Senate when they return from Passover and Easter break.

Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, first introduced the bill on the House side to “fully fund” public defense with an additional $50 million per year on top of the Board of Public Defense’s current annual budget of $106 million. That means the provision has a strong chance of reaching the desk of DFL Gov. Tim Walz.

In March, public defenders voted to strike for the first time in state history over low pay and high caseloads, which threatened to bring the justice system to a screeching halt. The state’s roughly 470 public defenders represent 80-90% of people charged with crimes in Minnesota.

Becker-Finn says she thinks the strike vote helped rally the necessary political will.

“I think the strike vote was helpful in sort of shaking people awake to the reality of what we’ve been talking about for years,” said Becker-Finn, who is a prosecutor for Hennepin County.

The state avoided a strike after the Board of Public Defense and public defenders reached a tentative agreement on a new contract that includes a provision that the Board must reopen negotiations over the pay scale if the Legislature gives them more money.

Public defenders often earn far less than prosecutors, who are generally employed by counties.

An assistant county attorney at the top of the pay scale earns $20,000 more a year on average than a top-earning assistant public defender: $135,607 versus $115,466.

In some areas of the state, the chasm is much larger. Prosecutors can make more than $147,000 in Ramsey County, $152,000 in Stearns County and $157,000 in Dakota County.

The low pay paired with high caseloads has led to a constant churn of public defenders across the state, with the average attorney sticking around only about four years.

The state is upwards of 150 lawyers short of being staffed at levels recommended by national standards

Kevin Kajer, chief administrator for the Board of Public Defense, says should lawmakers agree to the $50 million increase, they will be able to hire enough attorneys to meet national standards and raise public defender salaries to be comparable with prosecutors.

“We’re hopeful,” Kajer said. “It all depends now on if (lawmakers) can come to an agreement on all the other issues (in the public safety bills).”

*This story previously misstated the maximum salaries of assistant county attorneys in Ramsey, Stearns and Dakota counties. It has been corrected.

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Max Nesterak
Max Nesterak

Max Nesterak is the deputy editor of the Reformer and reports on labor and housing. Most recently he was an associate producer for Minnesota Public Radio after a stint at NPR. He also co-founded the Behavioral Scientist and was a Fulbright Scholar to Berlin, Germany.