New Mexico’s Public Defenders Need More Money for Contract Lawyers

Shortages of funding for public defenders throughout the country has become an all-too-familiar story. New Mexico’s public defender system is no exception. The office is hiring 33 staff counsel, but funding for contract counsel is still an issue. In this report, Jorge Alvarado the Chief Public Defender of New Mexico, discusses his office’s financial needs and problems.

Jorge Alvarado

Jorge Alvarado

Alvarado says that funding for his office has improved. The improvement is related to a change in New Mexico’s constitution to put the public defenders under the judiciary rather than the governor. The defender’s office is now an independent agency able to advocate for its needs.

Alvarado’s office is looking to pay contract lawyers an hourly fee rather than a flat rate. The public defender commission has concluded that an hourly rate would be preferable. The commission has set $85 as the fee. Alvarado notes that New Mexico is largely a rural state with only three population centers. The rural areas are sparsely populated, and that places an extra burden on contract lawyers, who might have to travel 120 miles to make an appearance. The economics of paying defenders in rural areas is not difficult to understand.

Alvarado explains that the public defender commission is charged with setting minimum standards for lawyers representing indigent clients in New Mexico. The idea of the standards is to ensure that indigent clients receive the legal representation they are entitled to under the U.S. and New Mexico constitutions. The need to provide quality representation is why the public defender’s office is pushing for funds adequate to hire lawyers to perform contract representation. The rates formerly paid are not sufficient to attract lawyers in 2015.

Alvarado points out that contract lawyers are held to the same standards as staff lawyers with the public defender’s office. It is important, he says, that there be oversight to maintain standards in every aspect of his office’s mission. There is an entire team supporting the office’s performance, including receptionists, secretaries, social workers, paralegals, investigators, and lawyers. A team effort is necessary if the office is to provide the required level of service.

Alvarado acknowledged that there had been some concern at a recent hearing of a legislative committee that the killing of a police officer in Rio Rancho, New Mexico by a public defender client. The situation created some political tension causing a senator to observe at the hearing that the issue of public defender funding can be divisive. However, members of both political parties are very supportive of public defender funding. And now, because of the constitutional amendment, the defender’s office can lobby for adequate funding.

Alvarado says that his office has received legislative support in its requests for funding. The support has been bipartisan, and the governor’s office has been supportive as well. The ideal is to carry out the mandate of Gideon v. Wainwright.

Jorge A. Alvarado is the Chief Public Defender for the State of New Mexico. He received a law degree in 1982 from Drake University in Iowa, and worked in California in a variety of legal positions for more than 25 years, including operating his own law practice and serving as a public defender and legal services attorney. Prior to his appointment, he was the managing attorney for New Mexico Legal Aid, Inc. in Albuquerque since 2009. The group provides legal services in Bernalillo, Sandoval, Valencia, Socorro and Torrance counties. The Legal Broadcast Network is a featured network of the Sequence Media Group.