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Judicial system overload?

The Becker County Courthouse is home to a new courts annex, but the court staff and public defender system is groaning under the weight of repeated state budget cuts.1 / 2
District Judge Peter Irvine says the Seventh Judicial District has had to be creative to deal with repeated state budget cuts.2 / 2

When people are stressed, the number of domestic abuse incidents rises. More people get involved in selling drugs to make money. Some are stretched so thin and can't afford basic needs that they start writing bad checks.

"So many crimes are financially motivated," Becker County public defender Nancy Bowman said. "Economic times are forcing people into committing crimes."

And most of the defendants are in need of a constitutionally mandated service that has been trimmed down by state budget cuts.

The state's public defense system took a hard hit when 14 percent of lawyers were laid off two years ago, and this year, one Becker County public defender was transferred to Clay County as a result of the cuts.

The shift has increased the workload for the remaining three Becker County lawyers by 25 percent.

Public defenders now have less time to develop attorney-client relationships, which raises the question of how adequate their representation may be.

"You won't see a lawyer on your first appearance anymore," said Steve Beitelspacher, former Becker County public defender, now serving Clay County. "It's bad for clients, it's bad for the system."

He added that some clients may begin to doubt the judicial system.

"If a client thinks you're just trying to do the thing that's quickest and easiest for you as the lawyer and not what's best for them as the client, people start to mistrust the system," he said.

Each of the Becker County public defenders used to be assigned a full week of emergency hearings once every four weeks.

With Beitelspacher gone, now each of them must handle all types of emergency hearings such as bail, first appearances, traffic violations, juvenile cases, probation and detention hearings, once every three weeks.

"All the cases that come in, you pick up and then you have to see them through over the next month or two or three months," Becker County public defender Andrew Berger said. "We were picking up every fourth felony, every fourth gross misdemeanor and now we're picking up every third."

The court system is overflowing with backlog cases that are pushing hearing dates back even further in the calendar.

Things get done, but they're delayed, sometimes causing longer jail time.

One of Beitelspacher's clients was charged with a gross misdemeanor offense that normally brings five to 10 days in jail -- but wasn't able to bond out and ended up spending more than 30 days in jail because of the delays.

"He got over-punished for his crime," Beitelspacher said. "The county ended up housing somebody they didn't need to house."

Becker County Sheriff Tim Gordon said more than 15 inmates were transferred to the Hubbard County jail last week due to an influx here -- an unusual event for this time of the year.

"We had 'em booked out for about a week by the time others got through the court system," he said.

To house inmates in Becker County, the costs range between $18 to $75 per day, depending on the needs and services provided. It's expensive to house them elsewhere, since Becker County still foot the bill.

Defendants are not the only ones affected by the delays.

The longer a case stays open, the longer the victim waits for a restitution payment in a property damage situation, or medical bills in assault cases, for example.

"It's that much longer before the person who caused the damage has to even start thinking about making those restitution payments," Beitelspacher said. "It slows down justice."

Seventh Judicial District Chief Judge Peter Irvine said because of the state's budget problems, the district had to be creative in filling retirees' positions internally, by reassigning the work and shifting things around.

A committee formed of judges, court administrators and personnel is currently coming up with ideas that would allow the court system to function with more anticipated cuts in the future.

"Judiciary is in serious trouble," Irvine said. "And we understand everybody else is too. But we provide a necessary service to Minnesota."