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Facing case backlog, Montana public defender's office looks to raise pay


The state Public Defender’s Office announced this week it has raised its contract attorney pay rate and is now working to increase public defender pay as part of an effort to address staffing shortages.

The Montana Office of the Public Defender says increasing pay will allow the office to fill vacant attorney jobs and resolve the current case backlog. Last year a Yellowstone County District Court judge held the office in contempt after more than 600 criminal cases didn’t have a public defender assigned.

"It’s a combination of long-standing factors severely exacerbated by COVID that lead to our current situation, which some have described as a crisis," said OPD spokesperson Brett Schandelson. "And in some ways, including in the Billings area, that’s probably a fair description."

OPD raised the contract attorney rate to $71 per hour, up from $56.

"They’ve been at $56 an hour since 2018, but we didn’t have the ability to raise it in our existing appropriation, and haven't been able to do so since, until this week," Schandelson said.

He says the office is currently in negotiations with the public defender union to develop a new pay plan. According to OPD, as of February there were 22 open public defender jobs in Montana.