According to Burleigh County State’s Attorney Julie Lawyer, the number of criminal cases put on her plate goes up three to five percent every year. And, the hire-rate isn’t keeping up with the workload.
You can see the hundreds of cases stacked up on Julie Lawyer’s desk, and while three to five percent may not sound like much, it adds up fast.
And this directly affects all of us, because cases are going on longer, and many are waiting months and months to see their day in court, and potentially, clear their name. The lesser the offense, the longer the wait.
The all-time low point for Lawyer’s office was in January. They were down six fulltime attorneys out of 14.
Lawyer shares, “We were doing basically double the work.”
Six lawyers was the quota in the Burleigh County State’s Attorney’s office when Lawyer started in 2000, and now, she says the need is for more than their current 14.
She explains, “So obviously the caseload has increased because it doesn’t seem like my workload has gone down when we’ve added attorneys. We’ve added attorneys when we just can’t handle the work anymore, and we’re actually at that point again.”
Lawyer’s office isn’t the only one dealing with the shortage. I spoke with several State’s Attorneys in Western North Dakota.
Stark County’s Tom Henning says they are fully-staffed, and McLean County’s Ladd Erickson says they just finally reached a point where they’re nearing a full-staff after raising wages. But, I was told they struggled to hire for the past four years.
Marlyce Wilder with Williams County has it rough.
She shares, “In recent years, we have been MUCH busier than in past years. At one point in time (and only for about 6 months or so), I did all the prosecutorial work in this office. I was the only attorney. I was swamped. But it was doable with 12-hour days and no vacations, or time off to be sick.”
In Ward County, Roza Larson says after 22 years working in the office, she’s in the worst position she’s ever been in.
The Ward County State’s Attorney adds. “Beyond busy.”
She says much of these cases circulating her office, are due to the revolving door and re-offenders.
Larson shares, “It’s nothing for us to have a defendant who has at least two files open. We have some who have eight open files.”
Ward County would need nine attorneys to be considered fully staffed.
Larson adds, “This spring I had five open positions, and I still have one, and the applications come few and far between.”
Many of them are brand-new lawyers.
Larson shares, “It’s a public safety issue. They can’t make the legal arguments fast enough when things need to be decided.”
Lawyer says attorneys in their office are getting burnt out due to the increasingly violent nature of these crimes, making the turnover rate even higher.
She explains, “There’s a significant increase in sexual offenses, in violent offenses that have been reported, in the age of the victims too. They’ve gotten younger over the years, from what I’ve seen, and it takes a toll.”
Another piece of this puzzle: Larson says there are fewer and fewer people going to law school these days.
So what’s the solution? Both attorneys told KX News their County Commissioners have been receptive when they’ve needed more money for additional staff. But overall, they say it’s going to be an ongoing problem.