Could a lawyer shortage compromise Vermont's criminal justice system?

MONTPELIER, Vt. (WCAX) We're following the graying of the Green Mountains and what happens when professionals don't want to move to rural areas.

We told you how it was creating shortages in our medical system, and now our Cat Viglienzoni has learned it's happening in our criminal justice system, too.

There are 2,855 active lawyers in Vermont right now. Many of them don't cross paths with the criminal justice system.

But when there are open jobs-- especially in the public defender system-- it's getting harder to fill them. And some are concerned that could lead to unjust results.

"We are literally a couple or three lawyers away from not being able to do the work we need to do in some of these counties," Vt. Defender General Matthew Valerio said.

Valerio says his office handles 22,000 cases a year, representing about 85% of the state's criminal court cases. But he says he dreads filling open jobs in anywhere but Chittenden or Washington counties.

"I was trying to fill a position in Rutland for two years, finally got somebody to do it," he said.

He says it's the same in places like Lamoille or Windham counties or the Northeast Kingdom. Most young lawyers just starting out don't want to work in rural areas and aren't as interested in defense work in general. He says his office contracts out 45 percent of their cases to local firms, which often don't have the same benefits.

"In contract offices, the turnover is huge. You're talking about probably a third every year," Valerio said.

Which means he's on the road often trying to recruit young lawyers from Boston or New York to fill jobs that aren't in his office. And in the meantime, he has to shift resources from other counties to make sure everyone gets represented.

"It's part of the job," he said. "I do it literally every week."

The shortage of lawyers, particularly in the defense system, is also a concern for prosecutors in rural areas.

"I don't think the defense is adequately staffed at this time, at least in the Northeast Kingdom," Essex County State's Attorney Vince Illuzzi said.

Illuzzi says the public defenders in his region do great work but they're outgunned and defense lawyers with high caseloads burn out quickly. He's worried the current system is lopsided which could lead to more cases being challenged after the fact.

"What you have are either unjust results or cases that continue to drag and when cases drag, it's not good for victims, it's not good for the memory of witnesses and oftentimes results in unjust results," Illuzzi said.

He wants to see the state pony up more cash to create more public defender positions that have the same pay and benefits as state prosecutors get to keep defense lawyers from switching to the other side of the courtroom.

Valerio says it is a challenge to compete with state's attorneys' offices but he's not sure throwing money at the problem will fix it.

"If people just don't want to do the work, then it doesn't matter how much you pay," he said.

As for possible solutions he'd like to see, Valerio says the state should consider whether we need a law program at one of the local universities that is designed to turn out lawyers who will stay here. He says the Vermont Law School doesn't do that enough.

And he says another option that could help would be some sort of state program for tuition forgiveness or student loan payment help to entice young lawyers to commit to staying here for a longer amount of time.

This shortage is not unique to Vermont. Rural areas around the country are seeing this same hiring problem. Valerio says Maine, New Hampshire and others are all talking about this. The New York Law Journal also reported lawyers were moving out of and retiring from upstate New York at an alarming rate. The New York Bar Association president calling it a "vast" justice gap and a "crisis" there.