Public defenders provide legal representation to people who can't afford private attorneys. They're appointed by a judge to represent those accused of a range of crimes from misdemeanors and juvenile offenses to serious felonies, and because of that they can see a lot of clients.
This week, officials from Wyoming's Office of the State Public Defender spoke to the Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee about how the office's workload is hurting its ability to provide representation. Officials said they need more staff to be able to effectively help Wyoming residents in need of legal assistance.
Diane Lozano, director for the state public defender's office, said since 2007 she has seen her office's caseload grow by 2000 cases a year. Her office can't find enough people to handle that increase.
Lozano said some local offices in the state are working well above their maximum workloads, and the concern is that they are not representing their clients properly.
Lozano recently spoke to the Legislature's Joint Judiciary Committee about the problem.
"It became apparent the crux of the ability to provide ethical representation from a public defender standpoint is manageable caseloads, manageable workloads," she said.
Lozano said their current workloads are far from manageable, especially in places like Campbell and Natrona counties.
The public defender's office reports that as of May 1, the four full-time attorneys at Campbell County's public defender's office are working at a 168 percent caseload maximum. That's about 470 assigned cases a year for each attorney and doesn't include cases that roll over. She said they recently hired a part-time employee.
"My attorneys in Campbell County are handling [nearly] three quarters more of a caseload than their ethical obligations allow," Lozano said.
The obvious solution is to get more attorneys. Part of the problem is finding enough money to convince local attorneys to take on these cases.
"In Campbell County, I think, local, private attorneys do well. The hourly rates that they're paid I've been told are about $200-$300 an hour. Our ability to pay contractors right now is about $50 an hour. And it's $50 an hour to handle a pretty heavy caseload that limits their ability to handle the rest of their law firm practices," Lozano said.
Lozano said she's also had trouble hiring and retaining attorneys in the area, especially in Campbell County.
After fearing that clients weren't getting properly represented, in frustration, she sent a letter to circuit court judges in early May that stated her office will no longer take on misdemeanor cases in Campbell and Natrona counties.
"The letter was my intention to start the conversation, of course, it had some strong language about how we're at a point we can't accept misdemeanors," Lozano said.
The proposal was not well received in Campbell County, where Circuit Court Judge Paul Phillips found Lozano in contempt of court and fined her $1,500 a day until the problem is resolved.
Phillips is not able to discuss the case while it's ongoing, but fellow Campbell County Circuit Court Judge Wendy Bartlett told the committee that the letter came out of the blue.
"We received the letter the same day it was in effect. We had no notice, no phone calls," Bartlett said.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairwoman Tara Nethercott, an attorney herself, expressed frustration about Lozano's action and asked why her office and the judges didn't discuss solutions before getting to this point.
"As a member of the Bar [Association] and a Chairman of the Judiciary Committee, I'm disappointed at this turn of events that this is a situation we couldn't come together and solve more thoughtfully," she said.
Judge Phillips did tell legislators he issued a stay in the contempt charge, which means the case is essentially on hold. It also stopped the daily fine. He said both sides are trying to find a solution.
In fact, there is now a roster of 14 lawyers who have volunteered to be assigned cases in Campbell County while Lozano's case is pending. However, Judge Bartlett said few of them have experience with criminal cases.
Phillips said that both parties want to ensure people have access to attorneys if they can't afford one.
"How we get there, right now, today, is a point of contention. But we all want to see the same thing," he said.
The issue now has the committee's attention. Nethercott said the committee will look at options that could attract and retain more public defenders.
"I believe that this committee can come up with some solutions to provide additional guidance, either to reduce the load on the state public defender's office, find additional funding and other holistic remedies," she said.
They suggested a variety of options that could help, like loan forgiveness for attorneys or changes to the pay scale.
Other ideas include taking some smaller crimes off the books or removing jail time from lower level offenses. Laramie Representative Charles Pelkey, who handles criminal cases, said that should be an easy fix.
"Maybe it's time for the legislature to look at that and try to get those statistics and take those periods of incarceration off the statutes so that we can lessen the load on public defender's office if nothing else," he said.
Both the public defender's office and Campbell County circuit judges said they will work together to find other solutions, but it's an issue that's not likely to go away any time soon.