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Montana Struggling To Recruit, Retain Public Defenders

Montana’s public defender's office is asking state officials for help as it continues to face trouble recruiting and retaining attorneys.

Travis Tilleman with the state-funded office that provides legal representation for people who can’t retain their own counsel says the state can’t pay competitive wages. 

“I hate to say it’s a problem that needs to be fixed with money. But it’s a problem that needs to be fixed with money,” Tilleman says.

The office gave an update to state lawmakers on the Law and Justice Interim Committee Tuesday. It’s far from the first time the office has run into money and staffing troubles

Tilleman says there are four open attorney positions in Billings, a public defender turned down a job in Bozeman due to unaffordable housing, and the office’s turnover rate is 26%. 

The office is expecting to see a rise in caseloads as COVID-19 restrictions have lifted and people can go to bars again. Officials are also expecting more child abuse and neglect cases as children are once again around mandatory reporters in schools and child care. 

Rep. Ryan Lynch, a Democrat from Butte, says lawmakers are seeking more data on the office’s caseload and how attorneys spend their time.

Copyright 2021 Montana Public Radio. To see more, visit Montana Public Radio.

Shaylee is a UM Journalism School student. She reports and helps produce Montana Evening News on MTPR.