SANTA FE — The Public Defender Department is one part of state government that is growing again.

Vacancies in the agency have declined from 20.8 percent in 2011 to 15 percent.

Jacqueline Cooper, the chief public defender, said she expected vacancies to drop to 8 percent by January.

Her department is filling 70 jobs, she told the Legislative Finance Committee this week.

In raw numbers, the public defender has 211 attorneys and 182 support employees. Stationed in 11 offices across the state, they represent indigent defendants and certain people with means. Those who can afford to pay must provide a portion of the fee upfront.

Even so, the department still needs a collection agency to go after those who fail to pay off their bills, Cooper said.

She said she had begun to reduce the vacancy rate because the Legislature increased her budget by $1.2 million last session.

Overall, the Public Defender Department's budget is $40.14 million. It stood at $42.6 million in 2010, then legislative cutbacks began because of the national fiscal crisis. Now Cooper is proposing that legislators restore the budget almost to the 2010 level.

She said a funding increase for her department actually would save the state money.

"We save lives. We help people," Cooper told legislators.

She said one segment of employees in her department was reducing crime, even as her attorneys represent defendants in criminal court.

Cooper said her agency's social workers were helping former defendants with mental illness or other chronic problems secure housing.


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She said this was a key step in their achieving some stability and staying out of trouble with the law.

For the first time, thousands of voters in New Mexico will consider in this election how the state public defender's office should be run.

Constitutional Amendment No. 5 would make the public defender independent of the governor's control.

Gov. Susana Martinez appointed Cooper as chief public defender in December 2011. Martinez fired the previous public defender, Hugh Dangler, in her second month in office.

Dangler said he opposed Martinez's call for reinstatement of the death penalty in New Mexico and was ousted soon after.

Martinez, through her spokesman, said Dangler was fired as part of a review of agency directors, not over any political stand.

For her part, Cooper said neither the governor nor anybody else had interfered with her day-to-day administration.

State Rep. Antonio "Moe" Maestas, D-Albuquerque, is the legislator who fought to get the public defender amendment on the ballot.

Maestas, himself a former prosecutor, said the agency would function best if it were not under the governor's control. All but eight states have set up their public defender offices independent of their governor.

Maestas said governors always talk about being tough on crime. But the public defender has a constitutional responsibility to protect the state's most disadvantaged criminal suspects, a job that is not popular politically, Maestas said.

The amendment would create a commission to hire the public defender, removing that power from the governor.

Martinez, a Republican, opposes the amendment, calling it unnecessary. Former governor Bill Richardson, a Democrat, took the same position.

Maestas drafted a bill to let voters decide the issue, eliminating the possibility of change being stopped by a governor's veto.

Milan Simonich, Santa Fe bureau chief of Texas-New Mexico Newspapers can be reached at msimonich@tnmnp.com or 505-820-6898. His blog is at nmcapitolreport.com