Colorado’s public defenders seek $17.7 million to raise salaries

Colorado’s public defenders are broadly underpaid, and that low pay is contributing to high attrition and heavy workloads in the state agency, which is now seeking a $17.7 million budget increase to raise salaries, agency documents show.

A full 98% of positions at regional offices within the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender are underpaid compared to similar jobs in the public sector, an independent study by an outside agency found last summer.

The public defender’s office is considering raising salaries between 2% and 28% for various positions within the agency, with an average increase of 15%, or about $10,800 a year, according to a preliminary report prepared by legislative staff for the Joint Budget Committee. The document outlines a potential plan for disbursing the $17.7 million, but that plan has not been finalized.

“Defenders are underpaid and under-resourced,” agency head Megan Ring said in a statement to The Denver Post. “We have lost talented, hard-working defenders to other public entities offering better pay.”

The average salary for most public defenders is 26% below comparable public sector jobs, the study by Logic Compensation Group found. The agency’s paralegals are paid 28% below similar jobs, and office managers 33% below. The gaps are less pronounced for supervisors and administrators within the public defender’s office, with the very top positions in the agency seeing higher salaries than comparable jobs.

“What’s revealed by the budget request is some real inequities in terms of position and who is getting compensated fairly and who is not,” said James Hardy, a public defender and a vice-chair on the steering committee of the Colorado Defenders Union, a newly-formed group that has not been recognized by the Office of the Colorado State Public Defender.

The union supports raises, but believes employees should see larger increases, and that the raises should be applied first to those who are most underpaid, Hardy said, speaking on behalf of the union’s steering committee.

“We think they should allocate it based on need and get these positions and categories that are so woefully below market up to market, before they consider any increases on folks who are already, based on their own compensation study, getting a market or better-than-market wage,” he said.

The public defender’s office provides constitutionally-mandated, free criminal defense attorneys to people who are in jail or those who can’t afford to hire a private attorney. In the upcoming financial year, the agency will have a staff of about 577 attorneys, 173 investigators, 154 administrative assistants, 112 paralegals, 54 management positions and 23 social workers, according to the legislative report. The agency had a $130 million budget last year and is asking for $152 million in the upcoming financial year.

The union represents about 35% of eligible employees and formed in September, with founding members citing underpay and overwork. Ring said the process to raise wages began in 2021, before the unionization effort was made public.

“We told the legislature in 2021 to expect a salary request in this year’s budget cycle,” she said. She added that the agency will work with “compensation experts to determine an equitable allocation of the increased funds,” should the budget request be granted.

Ring hopes raising salaries will reduce high attrition and heavy caseloads inside the public defender’s office. Attrition at the agency has spiked since 2020, particularly for attorneys and administrative assistants. Regional offices, where 95% of the agency’s employees work, saw a 22.5% attrition rate in the 2021-2022 financial year, according to the budget request.

The agency is losing experienced attorneys, the request says. In the 2021 financial year, 84 attorneys quit, and in the 2022 financial year, 119 attorneys left, according to the request. Those attorneys on average had about 4.5 years of experience with the department.

Because defendants have a right to be represented by an attorney, public defenders can’t turn down cases to keep their workload manageable in the way private attorneys can. Currently, public defenders handling felony cases may have more than 100 cases at any time, according to the public defenders’ budget request, and attorneys with misdemeanor cases could carry caseloads of several hundred.

The American Bar Association recommends an attorney take on no more than 100 cases in a year — not at one time. The Colorado Bar Association in November issued an ethics opinion that found attorneys, including public defenders, have an ethical duty to avoid excessive caseloads.

“It sort of is a vicious cycle,” Hardy said. “If you have excessive workload, and higher attrition because of that, the problem doesn’t get better, it just gets worse.”

James Karbach, director of legislative policy at the public defender’s office, said the agency is hoping to improve retention not only by raising pay but also through mental health support, upgrades to technology, offering flexible work schedules when possible and improving workplace culture.

“Working to retain our staff is a primary focus for us,” he said.

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