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'Unprecedented' concern



When the Montana Public Defender Commission requested a review of the state's public defender system, it expected to hear a fair amount of criticism and recommendations for improvement. But when American University returned its final report two weeks ago, the state was dismayed to learn that an unusual amount of the feedback came from anonymous sources.

Turns out, AU was just as surprised.

"It was unprecedented," says Caroline Cooper, assistant director of the AU technical assistance project behind the review. "We just had never had that kind of response."

The anonymous complaints backed several of the 32 recommendations AU issued in a final report to the state's Office of the Public Defender (OPD). Those recommendations focused on distressingly low staff morale—mostly the result of poor management and high workloads–in a four-year-old system created to defend the poor in Montana's courtrooms.

Chief Public Defender Randi Hood says the OPD welcomes AU's final recommendations and is "always interested in making improvements." She declined to comment on morale issues.

"We're working on lots of things," Hood says.

Cooper says the review's first large wave of comments was generated early on by an e-mail from Public Defender Commissioner Jim Taylor encouraging OPD staff statewide to participate.

"We got, I think, 35 responses just from that e-mail alone," Cooper says. "Almost all of them asked to be contacted confidentially."

Feedback continued for months, and Cooper adds anecdotal information was often corroborated by comments from judges, state legislators and attorneys during site visits.

On Aug. 21, the defender commission openly questioned AU's use of confidentiality in a 37-page response to an earlier draft report, going so far as to suggest AU release identities. The letter expresses concerns over complaints fueled by ulterior motives.

Cooper says the depth of the commission's August response was unusual, and prompted her team to include a "response to their response" with its final recommendations. Hence the month-long delay in issuing a final report.

"This isn't just one or two people that had some negative comments," Cooper says. "This was very much the sense of anyone we talked with."


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