The Montana Legislature last week was considering House Bill 773, which would have taken money away from cities and counties and given it to the state to help pay for the increasing costs of providing public defenders to indigent people who are charged with crimes. The cities and counties, not surprisingly, opposed this proposed raid on funds they rely upon to supplement their meagre budgets. As the Acantha went to press, debate on this bill was still being heard, but it had been amended so that it would not take money away from local governments to cover costs over which they have no control.
There was a sad bit of misinformation being circulated at the Legislature that blamed cities and counties for the increases in public defender costs, saying that new local ordinances, passed by city councils and county commissioners, were driving the increased costs of the statewide Office of the Public Defender (OPD).
That is simply not true. The Montana League of Cities and Towns and the Montana Association of Counties produced a report that refutes this claim. City and justice court cases decreased from the last fiscal year, dropping to 18,967 from 21,412, and are down from a high of 21,543 in fiscal year 2016.
The majority of cases the OPD handles are felony cases involving violations of state law. Public defenders are not even allowed for many city and county ordinance violations. People aren’t eligible for public defenders unless they are accused of violating laws that are punishable by jail time.
Dutton, Choteau and Fairfield and Teton County cannot afford to have the state dipping into their funding to pay for public defender costs. The state needs to come up with adequate funding for this constitutionally mandated service and should look more closely, perhaps through an interim study, to determine what is really driving OPD cost increases.