The Department of Administration announced on Friday that Harry Freebourn will serve as the interim director for the Office of the State Public Defender.
Freebourn recently retired from his position as administrative director at OPD. According to the statement, Freebourn’s institutional knowledge will help him to run the agency until a permanent director is hired.
Freebourn was previously responsible for strategic planning, financial management, policy development and communication strategy.
OPD has recently faced a series of challenges.
A task force was assembled after the 2015 session to address existing budgetary and operational problems. That task force produced seven bills. While not all made it through in their original form, the primary goals of the task force was to address leadership issues and budgetary concerns.
During the 2017 session, a package of reform bills, including one to hire a director, were passed with bipartisan support. Before the session started, a financial audit revealed OPD is short $3.5 million and is unable to assess or collect money owed to them by defendants. Shortly afterward, chief administrator Scott Cruse and Richard Gillespie, chairman of the Public Defender Commission, resigned.
Before House Bill 77, there were department leaders in all three divisions of OPD with oversight from the Public Defender Commission. Now Freebourn and eventually a permanent director, will oversee the entire agency and the commission will become advisory.
Freebourn will start as interim director on July 1 and serve until the Department of Administration makes a permanent hire. According to Jason Pitt, a spokesperson for the department, the position will remain open until filled. The department reviewed candidates on June 19 and June 26 but has not released information on finalists.
Other measures passed by the Legislature to improve OPD include having the Department of Revenue collect fees for public defender services. Beginning July 1, OPD will provide the personal information the Department of Revenue needs to collect any costs owed, credit a defendant and deposit collected fees into the general fund.
House Bill 59 limits counseling for unknown or assumed fathers when a child has been abused or neglected. When an assumed father cannot be reached, Montana law previously required the agency to appoint an attorney to represent the unavailable father. HB59 gave the court the final decision on whether to provide representation for an assumed or unknown father.
The Public Defender Commission estimated in October that an assumed father is represented in 25 percent of the agency’s cases. The legislation is expected to save OPD $1.2 million by the end of the 2017 fiscal year.
A final bill to establish a pilot project to address the underlying problems that introduce people to the criminal justice system was passed, although the initial funding was removed. Now the agency must establish one pilot project with existing resources. The bill was written to mimic the model used by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Nation, and would provide social services and advocacy in addition to comprehensive representation. The project aims to help people be less likely to return to the system and ultimately save taxpayer money.
The program, which the director will be responsible for implementing, is modeled off four pillars of holistic defense: seamless access to legal and nonlegal services that meet client legal and social support needs, dynamic interdisciplinary communication, advocates with interdisciplinary skill sets and a robust understanding of and connection to the community served.