FAIRMONT - With the loss of the area's last full-time public defense attorney, there will be some changes in operations for her colleagues.
Erica Volkir, the last full-time public defender in the four-county region of Martin, Faribault, Jackson and Watonwan, recently resigned to work for the non-profit organization Services for Challenging Youth.
"I loved being a public defender," Volkir said. "I have nothing but respect for the part-time defenders and the staff. This was a difficult decision to make, because I was committed to public defense and I believe it is a vital function. But I saw this opportunity, and it was a good fit for me so I took it."
Volkir was the last of three full-time attorneys to leave the Public Defender's Office since July 2010.
"The office will be closing at some point," said Fifth Judicial District chief public defender Scott Cutcher. "There's no deadline; it won't be happening before the holidays. But I expect it will happen sometime early next year."
Instead of hiring another full-time attorney, Cutcher said more part-time attorneys are being added to serve the district, which covers the southwest corner of Minnesota, including the towns of Marshall, Mankato and St. Peter.
"Right now, we have 68 applications for 3.5 positions," he said. "The coverage is going to move around some, and there is a desire for us to have one that's locally based in that southern tier of counties ... These positions are for the eastern part of the district, but most of them will be focused on the Mankato area. But we want one specifically for the southeast area."
Cutcher said that in the past, there had been some contracted public defenders in the district, but those contracts are expected to end after this year. There is only one contracted attorney in Martin County, Dale Hansen, while the three part-time public defense attorneys are Darci Bentz, Bill Grogin and Phil Elbert.
"They helped provide and help fill the gaps," Cutcher said. "But with having part-time defenders, they qualify for all the benefits ... With their licensing fees that every attorney has to pay, there was $100 added this year, and $75 of that went to public defense. It helped with the cuts we've seen over the years. And it's good to be able to be hiring people again."
The decision to close the Fairmont office was being considered even before Volkir left.
"The crime is going down, slightly, even though the cases we are seeing are more complicated and time-consuming," Cutcher said. "More of the [crime] numbers are being seen in the northeastern part of the district, with Mankato and St. Peter ... The drop, a lot of it is I think because our population is getting older, and it's declining some too."
Volkir believes the current trend for part-time public defenders is disturbing.
"It's sad that there appears to be a statewide move away from full-time to part-time defenders," she said. "We are lucky because we have part-time defenders who are committed to the area and are experienced; they all have more experience than me. But other areas of greater Minnesota may not have that luxury. That could lead to a higher rate of turnover, which brings concerns for the internal professional development. It's a weakening of the system as a whole if it is not adequately funded and trained, and ultimately the citizens are the ones that will be hurt. We're expecting a lot from each attorney, particularly because there is juggling of a private practice and windshield time traveling half an hour or an hour for court in our geographical area. It all undercuts the state system as a whole."
The remaining staff members at the Fairmont office - a secretary and an investigator - will be moved to Mankato, although Cutcher is considering finding some local office space for the investigator.
"It would be nice to just have a meeting room someplace we could use," Cutcher said. "We did OK as an agency this year, and it is nice to have an office there, so it's not a decision that was made lightly."