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ND indigent defense changes working

By Dave Thompson

Bismarck, ND – Since January First, North Dakota has a new system for providing legal counsel to criminal defendants that can't afford a lawyer.

In most areas, lawyers in private practice still work under contract to provide that service. But the contracts are no longer handled by the judges -- instead, they're handled by a state indigent defense office.

In three cities -- Minot, Dickinson and Williston -- there are "public defenders" -- and all they do is criminal defense.

The director of the indigent defense office -- Robin Huesby -- says she expects the number of public defenders to grow, and the state to move away from contracts with private practice lawyers.

"We were told that North Dakota was the last state to have 100-percent contract counsel handling indigent defense," Huesby said. "It's patently obvious that the system (of public defenders) does create a more uniform deilvery of services for indigent defendants."

Huesby says -- if the money is there -- Grand Forks could be next in line for a public defender office.

"Grand Forks would be a logical choice because of the law school," Huesby said. "We haven't committed to that. It hinges on budgetary constraints."

Huesby is now working on a budget proposal for the 2007 Legislature. The current budget for her office is $8.5 million.