Long Distance Lawyers

Public defenders burn the Bitterroot at both ends

December 09, 1999

Last spring, Ravalli County District Judge Jeffrey Langton told the Ravalli County Commissioners that the public defense budget for the county’s indigent was out-of-control. It had almost doubled in two years—from $152,000 in 1996-97 to $210,000 in 1997-98 to $293,000 in 1998-99.

The commissioners reacted by putting the public defender contract out for bid and a newly formed Missoula firm—Mansch, Becarri and McLaverty—won the bid. The firm agreed to provide indigent defense for all felony and misdemeanor cases, for juvenile defenders and for county cases brought by the state welfare authorities for a lump sum payment of $125,000.

Larry Mansch and Dirk Becarri served with the Missoula County Public Defender’s office for 14 years before deciding to form their own law practice with Mark McLaverty, who had also served with the public defender’s office for three years.

Local attorneys who had served as public defenders in the past were concerned at the time about potential problems and whether defendants would receive adequate representation. But, almost six months later, many participants feel the new system is working well.

“I believe the defendants are getting as good as, if not better, defense under the new system as they did before,” Langton says. “And the county will realize a savings of more than $95,000 this fiscal year.”

Ravalli County Attorney George Corn characterizes the new defenders as “professional” and “competent.” He too sees few differences in the quality of legal aid. “These men are very experienced,” Corn adds.

Mansch says he and the others believed they could serve the interests of Ravalli County’s indigent defendants for the agreed-upon fees and, so far, things are working out pretty much as they expected. But, he says, they have had to make some adjustments.

The firm operates two offices, one in Missoula and one in Hamilton. Until recently, the Hamilton office was often unmanned. That caused more than a little concern for justices of the peace Nancy Sabo and Randy Lint.

Sabo says the three attorneys are well qualified but she has had doubts about the long-distance arrangement.

“We see 95 percent of the defendants in Ravalli County, including felonies who make initial appearances before us,” Sabo says. “Justice Court is less formal and more spur-of-the-moment than district court, and it has been a problem getting in touch with these attorneys.”

Sabo says she and Lint have had to delay, continue and postpone cases because the new public defenders were 50 miles away or appearing in district court. And there have been complaints from defendants who have also had problems reaching their court-appointed attorneys.

Last week, Sabo received a letter from a defendant who says he followed her orders to contact his attorney without success. The defendant asked for another appointed attorney—but all the county public defenders belong to the same firm now.

“Jail inmates have complained that it is difficult to get hold of them and I have been concerned about the promptness of bail hearings in some cases,” Sabo says.” If someone is in jail they need a bond hearing whether the case is a misdemeanor or a felony. We are always concerned about pre-judgment jail time.”

Mansch says they are aware of the accessibility problem and are taking steps to correct it. All three attorneys are in Hamilton every Wednesday to appear before Langton in District Court and Youth Court. One of the three is now also in Hamilton on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday on a rotating schedule. The Hamilton office is now manned four days a week under the new arrangement.

Sabo agreed that appearances have improved recently, but she is still concerned that Justice Court—misdemeanor—defendants are getting less attention than they did under the previous system, where local lawyers were appointed and were more accessible to the court.

Under the other system, three attorneys accepted district court public defender work and three other attorneys accepted justice court and youth court public defender appointments. Now, three attorneys handle all the work.

“With the ever-growing case load in Justice Court we can’t afford to give up two days a week, but we can’t schedule anything on Wednesday because of District Court or on Friday because no one is in the county,” Sabo says. “Before we didn’t have to compete with Judge Langton and District Court. I believe Justice Court is lower on their priority list, that’s all.”

Mansch says improving the service is an on-going procedure. The firm plans to bid on the contract again next year and some expansion will probably be included in that bid proposal.

“People seem to think we’re doing quality work so far and we are determined to keep it up,” Mansch says.

Ravalli County Commissioner Alan Thompson agrees. “There were complaints about the attorneys before these guys,” he says. “It seems like it’s working really well. The county attorney and chief deputy county attorney tell us it’s running extremely well.”

Mansch is pleased to hear it. “The system was due for a change and we were there,” he concludes.

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