County weighs public defender idea

BROWNSTOWN

County officials are debating the merits of creating a public defender’s office in Jackson County.

Circuit Judge Richard Poynter recently began the push for a full-time office, contending it would save the county money, offer better representation for those who can’t afford an attorney, help alleviate jail overcrowding and offer financial protection if and when there is a death penalty case.

Not every county official attending a meeting Thursday to discuss the option was on board with the idea. Some even questioned the need for the office and its potential for cost savings.

Jackson Superior Court II Judge Bruce MacTavish said having a full-time public defender’s office has its advantages and disadvantages.

“I think we have a lot of government in this county, and another office is more government; and I don’t know if that’s what the public is looking for,” he said.

Others serving on the committee studying the issue are Jackson Superior I Judge Bruce Markel III; county council members Brian Thompson and Charlie Murphy; Sheriff Michael Carothers; J.L. Brewer, director of the Jackson-Jennings Community Corrections program; county Commissioner Tom Joray; and county Prosecutor AmyMarie Travis.

Once the issue is reviewed by the committee, it can be presented to the county commissioners. They would have to approve establishing a public defender’s board, composed of three appointed individuals and three judges, which would work on hiring the public defender.

Funding for a public defender’s office would have to be approved by the county council.

On Thursday, Poynter told the group that, as a judge, he’s obligated to make sure defendants have adequate legal representation and right now that’s not happening in his court.

That’s because there are four contracted part-time attorneys who are busy with cases in other counties rather than solely focused on the felony cases in his court, he said.

The current system, implemented Oct. 1 by Poynter, uses two attorneys, contracted at $60,000 each, to handle the more serious crimes (Level 1-4) and two others, who are paid $55,000 each, to handle the Level 5-6 cases.

Poynter said this system isn’t moving felony cases through the justice system quickly enough.

Last year, there were 687 felony cases, and 85 percent of those required Poynter to assign a public defender.

In Indiana, 63 counties have comprehensive plans for a defender’s office approved by the state, and 54 are eligible for reimbursement in noncapital cases.

Poynter said two of those are Lawrence and Noble counties, which are similar in size to Jackson County. Noble County cut the waiting time for felony cases from eight months to five months using the system, he said.

The slow process can take a toll on the already-overcrowded jail, Poynter added. There are 172 beds at the Brownstown facility, and the number of inmates hit 190 on Thursday, according to the sheriff.

Poynter said there’s a potential for an even larger increase in inmates starting July 1 because of a change in state law. That change requires offenders convicted of Class D felonies and sentenced to one year or less to be housed in county jails instead of state prison.

As for costs for a full-time public defender’s office with adequate staffing, Poynter said the state would reimburse 40 percent. He calculated it would cost $620,308 to establish the office — $235,259 from the state and $385,049 from the county.

Currently, the county pays $396,427 for attorney fees without a public defender, so the savings would be $11,378 annually for the county, Poynter said.

Another reason Poynter is pushing for the office is because it will prepare the county for a death penalty case.

MacTavish said the cases in his court involve family and juvenile issues, and four part-time attorneys are available to work those.

Having a full-time public defender’s office would not be as useful because his court tends to need different attorneys depending on the case, he said. For example, juvenile delinquency cases usually involve a group of juveniles who would each need a separate lawyer.

“One full-time lawyer just wouldn’t serve this court very well,” he said.

With public defender’s office, MacTavish acknowledged, there is the bonus of having state reimbursement, but that also means his court would be subjected to case limits. In other words, each public defender could work only so many cases or have a cap, giving the state some control over local programs.

For the past seven years, MacTavish said, he has had the same attorneys working for him, and they are familiar with the families and kids in his court. If they switched to the new system, that could change.

“I’m better off having people that have handled the cases for the last seven years,” he said. “You kind of lose some control with the public defender’s commission.”

Markel said Jackson Superior Court I handles cases such as criminal misdemeanors, small claims and civil cases, where a public defender’s office isn’t needed. Currently, he has a part-time contracted public defender.

“As far as Superior Court I is concerned, there is no savings and no advantage whatsoever for the county to go into the state system because we get no reimbursement,” Markel said.

Travis said she doesn’t want to form an opinion on the proposal until she finds out more at another meeting, set for 4:30 p.m. Feb. 19 at Jackson Superior Court II in Brownstown.

“I don’t have a pro or a con yet,” she said. “I don’t feel like I know enough to know how it would work ultimately.”

Travis said she still wants to know more about the cost-savings that are possible.

“I do carry a fiscal concern as a citizen and as a taxpayer,” she said.

Carothers said he’s not sure if a public defender’s office would help decrease the inmate count at the jail because even if inmates received representation quickly they still might be sentenced to serve time.

As for the death penalty issue, some of the officials brought up that there is $250,000 in a special public defender’s fund that could be used instead of relying on a public defender’s office.

Officials also discussed the idea of establishing a full-time public defender’s office for Poynter’s court and a part-time defender for MacTavish’s court.