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

Arianna Sena

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 Committee Wednesday 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 start coming 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," Baur told 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 allow the 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. 


This public service is part of our #YourNMGov project, in collaboration with KUNM radio. Support for public media provided by the Thornburg Foundation.



Kaveh Mowahed is a reporter with KUNM who follows government, public health and housing. Send story ideas to kaveh@kunm.org.