Report Criticizes Management of Public Defender’s Office

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – A draft report on the Office of the State Public Defender by a team of criminal justice experts credits the state for creating the office, but says it suffers from “major management deficiencies.”

The report was done by the Criminal Courts Technical Assistance Project at American University and was requested last year by Jim Taylor, the former chairman of the Montana Public Defender Commission.

It notes generally low morale among the state’s public defenders, the lack of an effective information management system and a chain of command dominated by one top administrator.

The draft report says the agency lacks supervision, meaningful job descriptions and annual employee evaluations.

The agency “is adrift” due to either a “lack of desire to manage or a lack of knowledge as to how to manage,” the report states.

The report, recently sent to state officials, makes 32 specific recommendations for improvements to the agency, which was created by the 2005 Legislature.

Chief Public Defender Randi Hood declined to discuss specifics of the draft report, but said its recommendations will be taken very seriously.

The report does credit Montana for making significant improvements in providing quality criminal defense services for those who cannot afford it.

“We would be remiss if we did not note the high regard expressed for the ODP attorneys by the justice system officials with whom the study team met as well as their commitment to providing high-quality defense services that was evident in all of our contacts,” the draft report said.

Missoula attorney Mike Sherwood, who was recently appointed chairman of the 11-member Public Defender Commission that oversees the state agency, said the agency is preparing a response before the final report is complete. The commission does not agree with all the findings, he said, but members are interested in the recommendations for improving the agency.

“We have put together a statewide criminal defense system in three years and it’s up and running, and that’s pretty good,” Sherwood said.

Sherwood said some of the recommendations in the report have already been adopted and the agency will soon have an information management system in place. Other changes will be considered as the agency’s $20 million annual budget allows.

The agency is headquartered in Butte and has 11 regional offices with a staff of 87 full-time attorneys and 160 contract attorneys.

Scott Crichton, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Montana, called some of the findings in the draft report “troubling,” but said the ACLU is encouraged that the agency is interested in improving.

“This is the first real outside look from experts, and we shouldn’t be surprised that they got some things right and there are some things that need to be worked on,” Crichton said.