June 26, 2015

Public defenders office still needs money to fill positions

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gavel on stack of documentsIn a report to an interim legislative committee, the New Mexico Law Offices of the Public Defender told lawmakers the situation for public defenders in the state is getting better, but that they still need more funding.

Chief Public Defender Jorge Alvarado told the Legislative Finance Committee on Friday that his office is on its way to filling 33 staff attorney positions this year, but that contract counsel is still a problem.

In his presentation, Alvarado said his office is struggling to maintain an adequate amount of contract attorneys to defend cases in rural parts of the state. He added that even with a standard of having “a heartbeat and a bar card” for contract attorneys, low flat rates for contracts makes it hard to attract lawyers.

The Law Offices of the Public Defender has long advocated for hourly rates over flat fees in order to properly defend clients in court. Alvarado maintained this position during the committee meeting and said hourly rates have helped five counties he deemed “in crisis.” He told committee members that five counties in the southern portion of New Mexico are now “holding ground” because of hourly rates to contracted lawyers.

“What I mean by holding ground, is that it has still not been solved yet,” he said.

Rep. Sarah Maestas Barnes, R-Albuquerque, offered a possible solution of using staff members in rural parts of the state instead of contract employees, but Alvarado countered that lawmakers would still have to approve money for additional offices.

Rep. Tim Lewis, R-Rio Rancho, referenced the recent killing of a Rio Rancho police officer and asked how the public defender’s office is staying accountable, to which Alvarado said “the system is working the best that it can.”

Lewis said he would still like to see more accountability.

“Moving forward there’s got to be more answers than that, I can’t go back to my constituents and say, ‘the system is working the best it can,’” Lewis said.

Sen. John Arthur Smith, D-Deming, the chair of the committee, said the public defender’s office has always had trouble getting money from the executive and legislative branches of the state. He criticized both Republican and Democratic governors of New Mexico for not appropriating money to the public defenders, then boasting a balanced budget.

He added that even if the legislature approves funds to the public defenders, “you still need a governor to sign off on it.” In the 2015 legislative session, lawmakers approved $1.3 million for the Law Offices of the Public Defender, but Gov. Susana Martinez later vetoed the funding from the budget. The lack of funds for the office created a hiring freeze until $400,000 was later approved by the state Board of Finance.

Smith ended the presentation by saying that the issue of public defender funding can be divisive, by quoting former New Mexico Governor Bruce King.

“He said, ‘Some of my friends say yes, and some of my friends say no, and I agree with my friends,’” Smith said.