Public defense progress 

Senate Bill 146 and the Missoula County Public Defender Office have something in common: progress.

SB 146, to establish a statewide public defender system, was heard before the Senate Judiciary Committee in January, “and most of the hard details of the bill are pretty well accepted by all parties at this minute,” says Sen. Dan McGee, R-Laurel, the bill’s primary sponsor.

The goal, McGee says, is “to try to craft a bill which is flexible enough to be used throughout the state…and that will guarantee that [indigent defendants] will have the same quality of public defense from one side of the state to the other in every situation which requires a public defender.”

A subcommittee has been appointed to work through “very minor details” of the bill, such as how funding percentages will be distributed to cities, counties and the state once the state assumes responsibility for the public defender system, McGee says (currently, public defender offices are funded at the county or local level); then, the bill will go to the Senate floor for debate, and from there to the House.

Missoula County Chief Public Defender Margaret Borg says, “basically I think [the bill] is a good place to begin, but until the state gets their feet in the water and swims around for a while, you’re really not going to know how it works. My only fear at this juncture is that it would be underfunded.”

Borg, though, is feeling upbeat. After staffing shortages and case overloads led the Missoula County Public Defender Office to stop taking new cases in August, a couple of recent hires (along with continued help from private attorneys assigned to public defender cases) have the office close to back on track. On Feb. 1, attorney Paulette Ferguson replaced Chief Deputy Public Defender Alice Kennedy, who moved out two weeks ago. Research assistant Kelly Sather has been promoted from within, leaving just one attorney position vacant.

Borg says her office hasn’t resumed taking on all new cases yet but aims to around mid-February. Today the Public Defender Office “is in a good place workload-wise and in a good place enthusiasm-wise,” she says. “It’s always nice to be able to clean the top of your desk.”

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