Opinion: Bipartisan ideas for a better public defender system

The Montana Constitution requires state government to provide public legal defense to individuals who cannot afford their own legal counsel when they are charged with crimes involving imprisonment, facing involuntary commitment because of a mental disorder placing them or another at risk, or facing loss of parental rights.

Kimberly Dudik

Kimberly Dudik

During the last four years, we served together on the Montana legislative subcommittee in charge of overseeing the budget for the Office of the State Public Defender. During this time, we became concerned regarding the steep increases in the agency’s budget and its ability to effectively provide essential justice services for Montanans. Because of this, our bipartisan committee unanimously agreed to create the Office of State Public Defender Task Force that existed following the 2015 legislative session until the current session, which began Monday.

The goal of this task force was to involve the public in finding solutions to improve the defense of indigent Montanans, ensure justice is served through our judicial system, and responsibly use state dollars to support the agency. This was the first time the agency was examined in this regard since its creation in 2005.

The task force consisted of six legislators (three Democrats and three Republicans), one judge, three defense attorneys and one county prosecutor.

RB

Randy Brodehl

At the end of the task force’s work, we proposed bills to make changes to the agency structure and Montana law to improve the agency’s functioning and delivery of essential services.  These changes include:

♦ Provide an agency director to deliver strong leadership. This will allow one person to be comprehensively in charge of and accountable for the entire agency’s service delivery and fiscal expenditures; currently a volunteer commission has these duties. This change should improve the work environment for agency employees, delivery of indigent defense in Montana,  and ultimately the safety of our citizens.

♦We also proposed two bills designed to break the silos of state government and encourage separate agencies to work together. One of these bills will involve DPHHS in eligibility screening for public defense at public expense in a similar manner to how citizens are screened for eligibility for DPHHS public services (such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, what some may call “welfare” or “food stamps”).

The second bill requires the Department of Revenue to collect fees owed to the state by those who receive public defender services and have already been determined by a court to be able to afford to pay for a portion of those services. Both of these bills will streamline government and cause fiscal savings because similar services will not have to be duplicated in different government agencies.

♦ Another change is designed to address the root causes of a large part of criminal behavior, including chemical dependency and mental health issues. This innovative bill will provide the framework to begin comprehensive diversionary or “holistic” criminal defense projects in up to four areas of Montana.

This type of criminal defense has services in place to deal with not only the criminal activity of the person charged with a crime but also link them with services to effectively address some of the underlying behaviors related to their criminal behavior. Such action is required because to stop criminal behavior, its underlying causes must be addressed.  Otherwise, the same individuals will frequently keep committing the same sorts of crimes and cycle through the criminal justice and public defense systems. Additionally, the children of these individuals may become involved in the child welfare system and, in the future, sometimes the criminal justice system.

Our bipartisan work has led to bipartisan solutions, involving the public’s input, that will cause justice to be better served in Montana. By making these and related changes, we aim to improve the public defense system in Montana that we are constitutionally required to provide. At the same time, we expect the agency to be able to provide better indigent defense in a more cost-effective manner, saving Montana taxpayers money in the years to come.

We are hopeful that our bipartisan efforts to improve state government serve the people of Montana well and improve community safety for all Montanans.

State Rep. Kimberly Dudik is a Democrat from Missoula and chaired the Office of State Public Defender Task Force.  State Rep. Randy Brodehl is a Republican from Kalispell and was vice chair of the task Force.

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