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Energy Boom in North Dakota Pushes Indigent Defense System Near ‘Constitutional Crisis,’ Report Says

Posted Aug 22, 2012 10:26 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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The energy boom in North Dakota has lowered the unemployment rate to 2.9 percent but led to dramatic increases in crime, straining the indigent defense system, according to a report by a state bar association task force.

The report concludes North Dakota’s Commission on Legal Counsel for Indigents is on the verge of a “constitutional crisis,” the Am Law Daily reports. The report recommends additional funding for judges and court clerks, indigent defense, and legal aid for the poor.

The indigent defense commission is seeking an additional $2 million from the state in its biennial budget to keep up with rising caseloads in the state’s Northwest Judicial District, where felonies have increased 53 percent between 2006 and 2011, and misdemeanors have jumped 44 percent.

The indigent defense commission is having difficulties finding private lawyers willing to accept $75 an hour to handle indigent defense cases because they already have plenty of work related to the energy boom. The story quotes Williston solo Jeff Nehring, who said indigent cases were taking up 60 percent of his time while producing just 25 percent of his income. He didn’t renew his contract with the commission.

High rents fueled by the boom were also a factor when the indigent defense commission interviewed candidates for an open public defender position in Williston, the story says. A one- or two-bedroom apartment in the town goes for about $2,500 a month. Several candidates decided they couldn't afford the job, which pays a starting salary of $69,000.

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