HELENA — The Office of State Public Defender (OPD) announced Thursday it plans to enter into collective bargaining to increase attorney pay with the goal of helping ease case backlog and staffing shortages.
The defender's office will immediately open negotiations with the public defender union to develop a pay plan to raise public defender pay closer to other lawyers. OPD will need to negotiate with the union that represents public defenders before a final salary amount can be announced.
In addition to raising pay for public defenders, the office is also raising the statewide rate to $71 an hour for contract attorneys. The contract attorney rate is currently $56 an hour. It had been $62 an hour but the rate was cut by the Bullock administration in 2018 as a way for the state to save money following state tax revenue not reaching expectations.
“With this plan, we are taking substantive steps to improve the public defense system in Montana. Our goal is to make public defender compensation more in line with similar attorneys so we can recruit and retain well-qualified attorneys to serve Montanans,” OPD Director Rhonda Lindquist said. “Making prudent, responsible investments in public defense is an investment in our justice system and in ensuring our constitutionally guaranteed rights are upheld.”
Public defender vacancies have created significant caseload pressures on OPD’s other employees and its pool of contract attorneys. As of Thursday, more than 15 public defender positions were listed on the state jobs website.
OPD says the higher rate had been piloted successfully in Billings since early this year when pandemic relief money was used to bolster pay rates.
“We’ve seen the positive impact the contract rate increase has had in Billings and are very excited to be able to offer that rate statewide,” said Brett Schandelson, OPD’s Development and Operations Bureau Chief.
The increased pay in Billings came after a Yellowstone County District Court judge held the public defender's office in contempt and fined the agency after more than 600 criminal cases as of July 2021 did not have a public defender assigned.
Editor's note: This story has been updated for clarity.