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Public Defender Department seeks boost

SANTA FE – The New Mexico agency that provides legal representation for indigent defendants is seeking a 12.5 percent budget increase – or roughly $6 million – in the coming year to hire about 40 additional attorneys and pay more to contract lawyers in rural parts of the state.

Ben Baur, the state’s chief public defender, said the request would not fulfill all the agency’s needs, but would be a start. He also said it’s not just more money the agency is seeking.

Ben Baur

“My mantra is give us more money or give us fewer cases,” Baur told reporters after a Tuesday hearing of the legislative Courts, Corrections and Justice Committee at the state Capitol.

The Public Defender Department has sought increased funding in recent years to alleviate attorney caseloads that are twice the national standards, Baur said.

Although the agency has received modest funding hikes, it has not been able to keep up with a stream of criminal cases, especially in largely rural areas, and has filed court documents in two New Mexico counties – Lincoln and Lea – arguing it is too underfunded to take on cases.

That’s despite a constitutional requirement that representation be provided to all eligible defendants.

In Lincoln County, attorneys with the Public Defender Department, also called the Law Offices of the Public Defender, are each currently handling at least 175 cases, and possibly more than 200, Baur said.

The state Supreme Court has declined to intervene in the matter, but some lawmakers suggested during Tuesday’s hearing that the state is approaching a crisis point when it comes to funding the agency.

“At a certain point, we’re against the constitutional cliff,” said Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe.

However, state dollars are expected to be stretched thin in the coming budget year, with just $25 million in projected available “new” money, according to revenue estimates released last month.

With state dollars scarce, Baur said, the cash-strapped Public Defender Department favors changing state law to de-emphasize how the state handles certain nonviolent offenses – including littering and driving on a suspended license. A bill aiming to do that was vetoed earlier this year by Gov. Susana Martinez.

Some legislators also suggested that prosecutors, public defenders and judges come together for a summit on funding challenges and other legal issues.

The budget for the coming fiscal year will be set by lawmakers during the 30-day legislative session that starts in January.

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