Lawmakers Should Make Room in the Budget for Defense Attorney Raises


With lawmakers heading into a special session next month to cut budgets for the rest of this biennium, and with the regular session starting in January likely to see even further cuts for the next biennium, there isn’t going to be an appetite for increasing spending anywhere in the budget.

But one place lawmakers should make some room is on salaries for public defenders. Because this is ridiculous:

FARGO – In the courtroom, public defenders and prosecutors are equals. But in North Dakota, that spirit of parity doesn’t extend to their paychecks, according to a salary survey by the state commission that oversees public defenders.

The survey revealed that supervising attorneys in public defender offices earn an average of $32,000 less than state’s attorneys and nearly $12,000 less than senior assistant state’s attorneys.

The survey also found that an assistant state’s attorney without senior status is paid an average of $7,000 more than a typical public defender.

According to the article the North Dakota Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents plans to ask lawmakers for $779,000 to bring defense attorney pay on par with that of state’s attorneys.

I hope lawmakers pass the bill, though salaries for the lawyers is just the tip of the iceberg for a larger disparity between the resources of the state and the resources of defendants in our criminal justice system.

Our Constitution guarantees a vigorous legal defense for anyone accused of a crime in our country. A defense to be paid by the taxpayers if the defendant cannot afford to pay for one themselves. But what the taxpayers provide pales in comparison to the resources the state can tap to prosecute the case.

Back when I worked as a private investigator my firm did a lot of work for the defense in criminal cases, sometimes for public defenders. In these cases – which we worked in both state in federal courts – our one or two investigators would be paid a very limited budget – often just a couple of thousand dollars – to review and rebut an investigation executed by dozens of government investigators who spent tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Often the attorneys we would pay for would go out of pocket, paying for our expenses themselves, to get the work done. Sometimes we would just eat our costs.

It shouldn’t have to be that way.

We have a ceaseless, rollicking national debate over our criminal justice system. Everything from search and seizure laws to police tactics are under constant public scrutiny, and the people on the front lines of that debate are defense attorneys. They are keeping the state and federal government honest in their use of the law to prosecute and convict defendants.

It’s important work. Not only should these lawyers should be paid commensurate with the loyal opposition on the other side of the court room, but they should be given the resources to try their cases effectively.

Because I’m not sure that’s always happening today.

Lawmakers are already expected to have a debate over criminal justice and incarceration reform in their next regular session. This issue, I think, should be part of that debate.