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Facing low pay and high caseloads, raises approved for N.H. public defenders

An empty courtroom
(File photo)

On Wednesday, the Executive Council agreed to spend $2.3 million of state money on temporary raises for employees of New Hampshire Public Defender, a non-profit which provides legal representation for indigent defendants.

The additional funds are an attempt to slow a wave of resignations within the public defender program--at least 36 in the past two years--with many citing low pay and staggering caseloads for their departures.

“We are in the midst of an indigent defense crisis, and it is not any one factor that got us here,” Sarah Blodgett, executive director of the Judicial Council, told councilors during Wednesday’s meeting. “It has been growing, and certainly the pandemic had a significant impact on that.”

Blodgett said there are approximately 800 criminal defendants in the state who have not yet been appointed legal representation despite constitutional requirements.

“This is a national issue right now. And it doesn’t have an easy answer or a short fix,” she added.

Blodgett noted that county and local prosecutors are also under the strain of surging caseloads.

Employees of N.H. Public Defender recently voted to unionize, with low pay named as one of the group’s main concerns. A portion of the new funding will go to staff attorneys based on negotiations led by their union representative, SEIU, while about $580,000 in funds will be awarded to support staff in the office. The funds are slated to run out in June 2023.

Blodgett said the program was also able to use American Rescue Plan Act funds to hire five additional attorneys in recent months, but noted it has struggled to recruit on a national level due to the lower wages.

Last year the N.H. Supreme Court launched a task force to address the shortage of criminal defense attorneys. The group recommended higher salaries for public defenders, and even encouraged judges to personally reach out to private attorneys who can take on defense cases.

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.

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