The Alaska House Finance Committee has approved funding four additional lawyers to work in the Public Defender Agency. They approved the money at a meeting on Monday.
Alaska Public Defender Quinlan Steiner said that without more lawyers, his agency would turn down cases.
“There’s a principal of ethics that requires a lawyer not to accept a case if they can’t competently handle that case, and not having enough time would be that reason,” Steiner said. “So, we would attempt to refuse cases.”
Steiner said if judges agree to those attempts, then it would cost the state more to hire private defense attorneys. Steiner said if judges say no, that would lead to substantial delays to resolve cases.
Anchorage independent Rep. Jason Grenn sponsored the amendment to provide $1 million to pay for the four lawyers and one support staff member. He noted that public defenders at the agency have too many cases according to state and national standards.
“One example is using the American Bar Association guideline for maximum ethical caseloads,” Grenn said. “It’s about 150 cases per attorney per year. In FY 2018, Public Defender Agency is projected to have 160 cases per year per attorney.”
The committee voted 7-4 along caucus lines to approve the amendment.
Anchorage Republican Rep. Lance Pruitt opposed the added money. He said the agency could better manage its budget.
“I think the problem here is not a money issue. It’s a management issue,” Pruitt said. “How do you deal with the current situation that we’re in? Do you deal with the current situation by adjusting how you deliver your services? I get it. It’s difficult. We don’t have the money right now. But you analyze how you deliver them.”
Pruitt proposed firing higher paid lawyers and replacing them with lower cost, less experienced lawyers. But the committee rejected his proposal.