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County adds 1.5 public defenders

By BOB HANSEN - bhansen@newsexaminer.com

It will cost an additional $75,000 to provide lawyers for criminal defendants in Fayette County who cannot pay for their own.

The Fayette County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday approved a request to pay money to create 1.5 additional public defender positions, as mandated by a state office. Judge Paul L. Freed of Fayette County Superior Court requested the positions.

A full public defender contract costs $50,000, and a half contract, $25,000.

The county had budgeted a total of $395,000 for public defenders this year. Of that, $300,000 is from the general fund and $95,000 from budgets for the county's two courts. In 2017, the county spent $352,934 on public defenders, with $250,000 coming from the general fund, according to figures from Jane Downard, county auditor.

The state reimbursed Fayette County for $129,072.87 for public defender costs in 2017, her figures show.

Public defenders, also called pauper attorneys, are paid by the county to defend people accused of crimes who don’t have money to pay for a legal representation. The county has five public defenders. The state Public Defender Commission hat pays part of the cost says they have too many cases for the amount of money they are paid. If the work load is not spread out, the state will stop paying some or all of that money.

“The problem is caseload, caseload, caseload,” Ralph N. Eldridge said. The number of local criminal cases assigned to public defenders is growing while the state has limited the amount of work each attorney can do for what they are paid.

Eldridge chairs the county’s public defender board which, nearly 10 years ago, developed the current system for paying the county’s pauper attorneys. They are paid on a contract basis.

A few years ago, the state Public Defender Commission changed how it values the work of the lawyers, he said. The state took the position that public defenders should be paid about as much as prosecuting attorneys. 

Compoounding that restriction, the local caseload has increased 129 percent in the past seven years, Eldridge said. In 2010, 310 cases were assigned to public defenders. That increased to 711 cases in 2017, he said.

In the last three months of 2010, public defenders billed the county a total of $68,500 for their services. In the last quarter of 2017, the total billed amount came to $103,000.

The local courts have received notice from the Public Defender Commission that unless the local overwork situation is corrected, the state grant will be curtailed. Eldridge said the county has 15 days to act.

Freed came to the county commissioners earlier this year, saying he had received notice from the state commission that the local public defenders had too much work in the last quarter of 2017. He told the commissioners then that a full position and possibly another half position would be needed. In April, the county council agreed to fund a full contract position for $50,000.

A new email from the state commission states that four of the five public defenders are “grossly overloaded” and “one is right on the line,” Freed said, paraphrasing.

Freed believes the increasing number of CHINS cases – Child In Need of Services – is driving a large part of the increase. The number of criminal cases coming to court last year were close to a record, he said.