Alarming increase in new clients facing felony charges
There has been an “alarming increase” in the number of new clients facing felony crimes in the last two years represented by the Office of the Public Defender and therefore an additional Assistant Public Defender will be needed to handle the case load heading into the new fiscal year 2015.
This is according to the PD’s Office fiscal year 2014 first quarter performance report, which also states that the office is conducting legal research on sentencing alternatives for military veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.
The PD’s Office provides legal representation to indigent adults and juveniles who have been arrested for, or charged with committing crimes, be they felonies, misdemeanors, and includes crimes involving immigration law, traffic violations, or civil commitment hearings for the ill and disabled as well as other matters as appointed by the High Court and District Court.
According to the first quarter report — Oct. 1 - Dec. 31, 2013 — submitted by Public Defender Douglas Fiaui, there has been a “sharp uptick” in the number of felony cases filed by the Attorney General’s Office and thus the PD’s Office has “seen an alarming increase in the number of new clients facing charges.”
For example, in calendar year 2012, there were 156 defendants charged in felony cases filed in the High Court, but in calendar year 2013, there were 228 cases — which represents a 46% increase in the number of clients represented by the PD’s Office charged with felonies.
“This increase seems not to indicate a 46% spike in felonious crime for calendar year 2013, as a number of the felony cases filed are from incidents which occurred in the past years, many having already been peaceably resolved between the victims and offenders,” the report states.
“...but it appears, perhaps, to be attributed to either the over zealousness of staff attorneys in the criminal divisions of the Attorney General’s Office or simply an increase in the number of attorneys handling felony cases,” it says.
The report went on to explain that generally, felony cases are more complicated than misdemeanor cases and require more time and resources to investigate and defend and that each felony attorney in the PD’s Office carries 65-75 cases per year.
Further, the additional 72 cases for 2013 have been “very burdensome” and have pushed assistant public defenders felony case loads up to over 100 cases per attorney. Therefore, an additional assistant public defender position may be necessary to shoulder the increased case load in fiscal year 2015 — which begins Oct. 1, 2014.
The report also says that coordination with other departments and agencies of government for services to their clients "is also a standing problem.”
In the FY 2014 first quarter, the PD’s Office took on 449 criminal cases — which included all adult felons, misdemeanors and immigration law violations; 192 traffic cases; 174 juvenile cases; and 19 civil commitment cases.
The report revealed that the PD’s office has contracted with two recent university graduates locally, to do legal research on the topic of special state courts and sentencing alternatives for military veterans, who return from service and find themselves in trouble with the law.
The research resulted in the first draft of a bill based on the Minnesota Model for veterans court and sentencing, it says.
While consultation with the AG’s Office and further revision will be necessary before this bill is submitted for the governor’s review and submission to the Fono, “a solid research-based groundwork has been laid and it is hoped that a final bill will be ready for submission in July” when the Fono convenes for the 4th regular session, the report says.
The Minnesota Veterans Court was implemented in 2010, with the mission to promote public safety and assist and support veterans and their families by creating a coordinated response through collaboration with the veteran’s service delivery system, community-based services, and the criminal justice system, according to the state’s court website.
Eligible offenses committed by veterans that can be heard in Veterans Court include misdemeanor, gross misdemeanor and felony offenses, except mandatory and presumptive prison commitments, it says.
REVIEW OF CASE FILES
The PD’s office has also hired a new paralegal under the Governor’s Apprenticeship Program, to compile data from client files to identify the ages, nationalities, charges and subsequent convictions of office clients.
Once the work is completed, it is anticipated that this data will ultimately assist in tailoring useful legislation which will propose alternative sentencing methods for youthful and first time offenders and foreign nationals.
“The data will also definitively identify what kinds of crimes have been most prevalent over the last five years,” the report says, and noted that this may also lead to the PD’s Office to target certain legal issues and areas of criminal law for training and capacity building.
It may also assist in proposing legislative changes or policy changes to how and when prosecutions are initiated by the AG’s Office.