HELENA — Montana officials moved forward Wednesday with an effort to overhaul the state’s public defender system, which has been long beset with sinking morale and a growing caseload that puts pressure on what officials say is an overburdened staff.
The state Senate without debate gave preliminary support to a pilot project that s to develop a more comprehensive approach to helping repeat offenders stay out of the criminal justice system. The program, if approved, would connect defendants with social workers and services to help offenders get their lives back on track.
The Senate also gave final approval to a bill stripping a requirement that automatically assigned a public defender to a parent of a child, even if that parent had not been identified or was not involved in the case.
The latter change is expected to save the system at least $100,000 annually. Earlier, a legislative committee approved a plan to transfer oversight of the public defender’s office to the Department of Administration from a state commission.
Caseloads for the public defender system have risen dramatically since 2012, according to statistics compiled by a task force charged with fixing the problems.
For a yearlong period that ended last June, public defenders handled more than 7,900 cases in district courts — about 30 percent higher than the same period that ended in June of 2012. Cases in lower courts that usually handle non-felony crimes rose more than 10 percent, to 21,543 cases, during the same period.
To help reduce the caseload, the state is exploring a variety of approaches, including a novel method called a “holistic defense pilot project” already used by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. It is among the growing number of jurisdictions nationwide experimenting with a holistic approach that draws human support services into the criminal justice system.
“Please don’t be distracted by the title. It really has to do with reducing recidivism,” said Sen. Margaret MacDonald, a Democrat from Billings, referring to the phrase, “holistic defense,” a term that is taking root among public defenders swamped with cases amid budgetary challenges.
The project would be established for up to four public defender’s offices. The approach could eventually save millions of dollars, according to the pilot program’s lead sponsor, Rep. Kimberly Dudik, a Democrat from Missoula, who is sponsoring several bills as part of the overhaul.
“If you just deal with the legal problems that a person is facing, you frequently see the same person revolving through the criminal justice system,” Dudik said.
The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have said their holistic program has cut recidivism in half among chronic reoffenders who suffer from mental illness and substance abuse. Social workers have assisted tribal justice officers in helping offenders obtain driver’s licenses, jobs, housing and medical care.
Rising caseloads for public defenders have translated into reduced services for the poor people accused and convicted of crimes that the system serves. No additional money is being allocated to launch the experimental program.
Montana’s Public Defender’s Office has a current budget of $32.9 million. Much of the funding pays contract attorneys who help the agency’s staff attorneys handle cases.