ACLU Agrees to Postpone Trial Over Lack of Legal Defense for Montana's Poor While Attorney General Seeks Legislative Remedy

Affiliate: ACLU of Montana
May 7, 2004 12:00 am

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ACLU of Montana
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HELENA, MT – In response to a request from the Montana Attorney General, the American Civil Liberties Union and state officials today agreed to postpone trial in the ACLU’s lawsuit over inadequacy of the state’s legal defense system for the poor in Montana in order to allow the Attorney General to advocate for legislation that will address the problems the litigation seeks to remedy.

The trial was scheduled to begin on May 17 and was expected to last three to four weeks. The ACLU said further litigation would be unnecessary should the state create such an adequate system, but that it will proceed to trial in May 2005 if the legislature fails to act.

“With each passing day, more indigent clients in this state remain in jail unnecessarily or plead guilty to charges that go uninvestigated by their lawyers,”” said Amy Randall, the ACLU of Montana’s staff attorney. “”If the legislature fails to act, the ACLU is prepared to prove that the current system is dreadfully underfunded and lacks proper administration.””

“”However,”” she added, “”since the Attorney General has pledged to take a leadership role in advocating for meaningful legislative reform designed to fix the deficiencies in the current system, we will wait to see what the legislature is willing to do before proceeding further.””

The Attorney General has agreed to advocate for a public defender system that includes an oversight commission that will issue statewide standards that all public defenders must comply with, a chief public defender with responsibility to oversee the day-to-day administration of the system, and regional public defender offices with full-time staff in those counties that have full-time prosecutors. The system will incorporate widely recognized national standards and have sufficient funding to allow the attorneys employed by the system to provide the level of legal representation required under the Montana Constitution.

Under the current system, no one on the state level administers public defender services, the ACLU said. According to a recent report to the Law and Justice Interim Committee (the legislative body that is researching possible structures and costs for a new public defender system), the state expects to spend $2.3 million over the allocated budget for
indigent defense this fiscal year.

But the public defender budget was woefully inadequate to begin with, and poor funding and administration are at the root of the public defender crisis in Montana, according to ACLU cooperating attorney Ron Waterman. For example, he noted, the state does not currently budget for or pay for information technology or training for public defenders.

“”The reason the current public defender program is facing a serious deficit is because the costs of indigent defense have never been properly identified and managed,”” Waterman said. “”Between now and next May, the legislature has a golden opportunity to not only provide constitutionally adequate representation to the poor, but also to require state administrators to properly manage the costs of the program.””

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