The people’s defense

Hennepin County shouldn’t turn on its public defenders to save money.

The American justice system is based on the idea that even the poorest âÄî represented by public defenders âÄî deserve their day in court. In Minnesota, new budget cuts put this vital service at risk. The problem in Hennepin County is acute. To combat the expected $6 billion deficit, the state implemented a hiring freeze and has reduced the number of public defenders. Last year, an understaffed Hennepin County public defenderâÄôs office could field just 116 lawyers to handle its 54,000 cases âÄî double the American Bar AssociationâÄôs recommended caseload. Now the county wants to reduce its contribution by cutting 5 percent from their share of the 2011 budget. The cuts will come mostly from experienced public defenders âÄî paid up to $117,000 annually âÄî being encouraged to retire or take unpaid leaves. The cuts could not come at a worse time. Despite the budget constraints the County faces, there is little left to cut in the public defenderâÄôs office after several years of belt tightening. Former Minnesota Supreme Court Chief Justice Eric Magnuson has campaigned across the state against cuts to the judicial system while in office. As he told us, “We have a justice system, and it doesnâÄôt work unless all the parts work.” By representing those unable to pay for their own defense, the public defenderâÄôs office plays an essential, incontrovertible role in the stateâÄôs justice system. Cutting its budget is not thrift but stinginess. Even a 5 percent cut undermines the governmentâÄôs moral commitment to justice for all, at the time when many can least afford to pay for their own defense. Hennepin County must look elsewhere to save money, places where the savings do not trample the disadvantaged and the public servants who represent them.