Agency that provides lawyers for people who cannot afford to find lawyers | The mighty 790 KFGO

BISMARCK, ND — A North Dakota agency that provides attorneys for criminal suspects who cannot afford to hire their own is struggling to find attorneys as case numbers mount, according to its director.

Travis Finck, executive director of the state Commission on Legal Aid for Those in Need, said the agency is seeking more legal aid funding from the legislature — including additional jobs and pay increases for staff and contract attorneys — to meet the increased need.

The agency, created by the legislature in 2005, assigns a defense attorney in cases where defendants are declared entitled to receive such counsel. The agency processed 16,059 cases in fiscal 2022, which ended in June — about the same as last year, but an 11 percent increase from fiscal 2020.

Not only are cases increasing, the types of crimes across the state have become more serious and taking more time for attorneys, Finck said. Crime accounts for the bulk of the agency’s caseload.

Juvenile cases have also risen – from 1,583 in 2021 to 2,315 in 2022, according to the agency’s data.

In addition, the total number of cases in the current fiscal year, which began in July, already surpasses the previous two years, data shows.

The agency is asking for a $2 million increase from its current two-year budget of $20.9 million. The extra money would be used for additional investigators in each public defender’s office and a pay increase from $75 to $80 an hour for contract attorneys.

The commission is currently funded for 20 lawyers, but three – and soon four – are currently short, Finck said. The lawyers are based in Bismarck, Minot, Fargo, Williston, Devils Lake, Dickinson and Grand Forks. The agency also has a pool of about 60 private attorneys to help with the workload.

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Finck said contract attorneys in the federal court system are reimbursed about twice what the state allows.

The legislature established the agency during North Dakota’s oil boom, which drove the state’s population to record highs – leading to a growing need for defendants who could not afford lawyers. The agency’s budget has more than doubled since its inception.

The idea for the agency, headed by former Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court Gerald VandeWalle, was to take the job of providing criminal defense lawyers for penniless defendants out of the judges’ hands.

Supporters of the agency’s establishment argued that the previous system created a conflict of interest, as judges might later have had to decide whether the attorney properly represented a defendant.

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