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Public Defender’s Office asks legislators for money to hire more social workers

Arianna Sena
/
KUNM

New Mexico’s Law Office of the Public Defender is seeking more funding, but not just for more lawyers. They want to hire more social workers, too.

New Mexico’s Chief Public Defender, Bennet Baur, told the Legislative Finance CommitteeWednesday that an extra $6 million would help with staffing in an office that seems perpetually short-handed

 

Baur said the office’s lawyer vacancy rate has more than doubled during the pandemic to about 13% at this time, and that cases put on hold while courts were closed under COVID-19 precautions will startcoming up in the next several months – adding to the backlog. But he also emphasized the need for more social workers. 

“We believe that the investment in holistic defense and social work helps not just our clients but of course New Mexico as a whole," Baurtold lawmakers and LFC staff.

Baur says most of his clients have mental health or substance abuse issues that could keep them circulating in the criminal justice system while no other agency is in a good position to intervene. Social workers can help with services that will “lift them up” so they don’t become repeat offenders or get released into the same circumstances that led to criminal activities in the first place.

A budget boost would allowthe office to hire more lawyers, more social workers and support staff, and bring pay closer to market rate for full-time employees and contract workers. 

Baur’s office says only a single contract social worker is willing to supplement the regular staff at the current contract rate of $35 an hour. They’d like to boost pay to $50 an hour for contract workers and hire four more full-time social workers.

Lawmakers will finalize spending decisions during the 30-day legislative session starting in January. 

 

 

Copyright 2021 KUNM

Kaveh Mowahed wears several hats in KUNM’s news department, while working toward a PhD in the History of Medicine at UNM. He started here as an intern in 2013 and has been a reporter, production assistant, host, and data analyst over the years. Kaveh studied print journalism at Arizona State University, but soon after earning his bachelor’s degree he found his love for radio. Kaveh thinks hearing is the most valuable of the senses because of how it engages the imagination. When he’s not reading about 19th century medical treatments or editing audio for the radio, he’s usually home listening to records on a very old stereo that he insists sounds better than a newer one.