HELENA — Entry-level and first-year salaries for public defenders across Montana are set to increase by about $10,000.
The Office of State Public Defenders reached an agreement with union leaders Friday after opening negotiations Thursday. Wages will increase for all public defenders in May, with entry-level and first-year attorneys seeing the largest increase.
Salaries will increase by about $6,800 for defenders in their second year and about $5,200 for public defenders with three or more years of experience, said Timm Twardoski, executive director for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Montana Council 9. AFSCME helped negotiate for the public defenders union, Local 3448.
The pay increase is front loaded on the first two years because qualified applicants are not applying for open public defender positions, said Brett Schandelson, spokesperson for the state defender’s office. As of Friday, the state jobs website was advertising 15 open public defender positions across the state.
“We know we still need to address longevity and pay issues,” Schandelson said Friday to MTN News. “But this is much more than a stop gap. This is a significant and unprecedented step for us.”
The pay increase was a great start, Twardoski said. But the union would continue to watch the city and county markets. But salaries are now competitive in most places in the state, excluding Yellowstone County, where public defenders still make “considerably less than the county attorneys there,” Twardoski said.
Entry-level public defender salaries will increase by about $11,750 with a new proposed salary of about $76,800 per year.
Salaries for defenders with one year of experience will increase by about $9,600 with a new proposed salary of about $81,160.
Defenders with two years of experience will get a salary increase of about $6,800 with a new proposed salary of about $85,440.
Salaries for defenders with three or more years of experience will increase by about $5,200, with a new proposed salary of about $89,710.
The state public defender office also announced Thursday its plan to raise the hourly contract rate for public defenders to $71, a $15 increase. Prior to 2018, the public defender contract rate was $62, but was lowered by Gov. Steve Bullock’s administration as a cost-cutting measure after state tax revenue was lower than expected.
The increased pay in Billings came after Yellowstone County District Court Judge Donald Harris held the public defender's office in contempt and fined the agency after more than 600 criminal cases as of July 2021 did not have a public defender assigned.