‘Extreme’ understaffing will force public defenders to outsource misdemeanor cases

A judge listens to initial appearances at Natrona County Circuit Court on Friday afternoon at the Townsend Justice Center in Casper. (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

CASPER, Wyo. — Due to “extreme” understaffing, public defenders in Natrona County will no longer be appointed to misdemeanor cases.

The change will take effect on June 1.

Public defenders will still be appointed to felony cases, and the Natrona County Judges could begin to appoint attorneys to misdemeanor cases on a rotation basis.

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This is according to Natrona County Bar Association Vice President Amy Iberlin, who sent an email to NC Bar Association attorneys on May 15.

“Many of you may be aware that the Natrona County Public Defender’s Office is extremely understaffed right now,” Iberlin wrote.

“Because of these staffing issues, the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office has advised that the Natrona County Public Defender’s Office will no longer be appointed to misdemeanor cases until this staffing crisis is resolved. Only felonies will be appointed to the PD’s.”

Iberlin said that she sent the email at the request of the Circuit Court in order to seek volunteers to represent defendants in misdemeanor cases.

“Circuit Court has asked that I send this e-mail to see if anyone would be willing to volunteer to take on some misdemeanor cases (on a temporary basis),” she wrote.

“If no volunteers come forward, every attorney in Natrona County (no matter the subject area of their practice) will be on a rotation for appointment to misdemeanors. Please know this practice and procedure will continue until the office in Natrona County is fully staffed.”

Casper attorney Frank Chapman, who said he was formerly the first state public defender in Wyoming, said he thinks it will be a big problem to have attorneys not fully trained in criminal defense appointed to these cases.

“A criminal defense lawyer has to be competent,” Chapman said. “Courts require that persons be ready, willing and able [to serve their clients].”

He pointed to the 6th Amendment, saying that it entitles people to effective counsel, placing emphasis on the term “effective.”

From Chapman’s perspective the onus of the blame should fall on the Wyoming State Legislature, which he referred to as “tight-pocketed.”

“The legislature has to pay public defenders a fair wage,” he said.

Iberlin’s email explains that the NC Public Defender’s Office is already understaffed, and that the staffing shortage will increase as of June 1.

“There are 5.25 attorneys handling the workload of 7.25 attorneys,” her email states. “By June 1, 2019, the PD’s office in Casper will be down to 4.25 attorneys.”

Iberlin explained that these are not round numbers due to the way that some law firms contract to provide public defense.

“They’re completely understaffed,” Iberlin told Oil City. “That’s certainly not enough people to go around.”

She added that she’d learned of the changes from communication that the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office sent to both Natrona and Campbell County Judges.

“That’s huge for Casper and Gillette,” Iberlin said.

The Natrona County Townsend Justice Center (Dan Cepeda, Oil City)

Wyoming State Bar Executive Director Sharon Wilkinson said the Wyoming State Bar is working to support both counties.

“We are in touch with the public defenders office to see how we can help in any way,” Wilkinson said.

She went on to say that they are working to help out of state applicants get approved to practice in the State of Wyoming, but explained that process can sometimes take six months.

“This is all somewhat new to us, so we’re just partnering with the public defender’s office to see how the Bar can step in and help. If we need to recruit volunteers from other parts of the state,” Wilkinson continued. “We’re trying to weigh our options.”

An understaffed Public Defender’s Office increases the workload on the remaining public defenders and Iberlin said she thought this informed the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office’s decision.

One reason for the staffing crisis may be insufficient funding from the state for the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office. Iberlin said that whatever the reason, not enough attorneys are applying to fill public defender vacancies.

“These jobs are posted,” she said. “People just aren’t applying.”

In addition to lower wages for public defenders, increased workloads due to staffing shortages could be another reason people aren’t applying, Iberlin said.

Iberlin added she’s had some response from people willing to take on some of the work, but so far not enough to ease the shortage.

Iberlin said if more volunteers don’t step forward, the Natrona County Judges would have to appoint attorneys to represent defendants in misdemeanor cases, even if their expertise is not in this area of the law.

Iberlin said that the continuing legal education could perhaps be offered to ensure that appointed lawyers receive some training in areas of misdemeanor defense.

Lawyers have a duty to accept these appointments and could face contempt of court or sanctioning if they do not.

“If a judge tells you you’re doing a case, you’re doing the case,” Iberlin said.

Iberlin explained that attorneys appointed to misdemeanor cases would receive some form of reimbursement, though she said that might look different in Natrona and Campbell County.

Chapman said that he doubts enough volunteers will come forward.

“There are not going to be sufficient volunteers to do it for free,” he said.

Another reason for the staffing shortage is attorneys at the NC Public Defender’s Office leaving to take positions elsewhere.

Iberlin said that Kerri Johnson was appointed as a Natrona County District Judge, Rob Oldham moved into private practice, Curtis Cheney took a position in Thermopolis and Dylan Rosalez will depart to take a federal position.

Iberlin added that the changes could have serious consequences in Natrona County.

“There are a lot of criminal cases coming through Natrona County,” she said. “How do the courts staff these cases and give these folks representation?”

Iberlin said that she thinks State Public Defender Diane Lozano would not have gone down this route if the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office had better options.

“I respect her very much and I believe her,” Iberlin said.

She also said that the Natrona County Judges may have no other option than to begin appointing any lawyers in Natrona County to Circuit Court cases, adding that the judges asked her to compile a list of every attorney in the county.

“I don’t know what else the judges can do,” she said. “I don’t know of a better way to do it.”

Iberlin has great respect for Natrona County’s public defenders.

“They all work so hard in that office,” she said. “Great folks.”

Iberlin’s full email reads as follows:

Many of you may be aware that the Natrona County Public Defender’s Office is extremely understaffed right now. There are 5.25 attorneys handling the workload of 7.25 attorneys. By June 1, 2019, the PD’s office in Casper will be down to 4.25 attorneys. The office has open positions that have not yet been filled (if anyone is looking for a job, please get in touch with me and I can help you get in touch with the PD folks in Casper).

There are 5.25 attorneys handling the workload of 7.25 attorneys. By June 1, 2019, the PD’s office in Casper will be down to 4.25 attorneys. The office has open positions that have not yet been filled (if anyone is looking for a job, please get in touch with me and I can help you get in touch with the PD folks in Casper).

Because of these staffing issues, the Wyoming Public Defender’s Office has advised that the Natrona County Public Defender’s Office will no longer be apppointed to misdemeanor cases until this staffing crisis is resolved. Only felonies will be appointed to the PD’s. Circuit Court has asked that I send this e-mail to see if anyone would be willing to volunteer to take on some misdemeanor cases (on a temporary basis). If you would like to volunteer, please get in touch with me, Kyle Ridgeway, or Pat Lewallen as soon as possible.

If no volunteers come forward, every attorney in Natrona County (no matter the subject area of their practice) will be on a rotation for appointment to misdemeanors. Please know this practice and procedure will continue until the office in Natrona County is fully staffed.

Please get in touch if you have any questions. Also, do not be surprised if the Natrona County Judges start appointing you to misdemeanor cases in Circuit Court, effective June 1.

May 15 email from Natrona County Bar Association Vice President Amy Iberlin to bar members

Note: Multiple messages left for the Wyoming Public Defenders Office were not returned by publication time.