Jackson County commissioners have decided to move quickly to establish a public defender’s office.
The purpose of that office would be to help alleviate overcrowding at the jail and give people facing criminal charges better legal representation without much additional cost to the county.
A committee of county officials recently agreed to ask the commissioners to establish the office and county council to fund it.
To establish the office, commissioners need to set up a three-member board and appoint a representative. The remaining two members would be appointed by Jackson Circuit Judge Richard W. Poynter and Jackson Superior Court II Judge Bruce MacTavish.
During their meeting Tuesday night, commissioners voted 3-0 to enact the ordinance.
As it turns out, however, the county already has an ordinance in place establishing a public defender office board.
Commissioners President Jerry Hounshel said he recently became aware of that ordinance, enacted in 2003, but believes county officials never acted on it.
County human resources manager Jeff Hubbard agreed, saying there is no record of commissioners even having one of the appointments to the board.
Hounshel said he knows the committee that recommended establishing the public defender’s office wants to move forward with it, and commissioners needed to come up with their appointment before their next meeting on June 16.
Commissioner Matt Reedy said the only issue he saw concerns with is the placement of the office.
Commissioner Tom Joray, who is on the committee, said there is unused office space at Jackson Superior Court I in Seymour, but there might also be some space available in Brownstown. Jackson Circuit Court and Jackson Superior Court II both are located in Brownstown and have the most need for public defender attorneys.
A state official recently estimated establishing the public defender’s office could save the county as much as $25,000 or cost $10,000, depending how the office is staffed.
The current budget for public defenders, who work on contract, is $405,427.
The state reimburses counties with public defender offices for 40 percent of the annual cost.
Commissioners asked county attorney Susan Bevers to take a look at the existing ordinance establishing the public defender board and amend it to meet present needs and state law.
Bevers said she also would take a look to see if commissioners might be better off rescinding the existing ordinance and putting a new one in place.
In May, the average inmate count at the jail was 219, with a high of 235 and a low of 200. The jail has 172 beds.
Joray asked Sheriff Mike Carothers if any of the inmates in the jail were from other counties, and Carothers said all were arrested here.
Hounshel asked Carothers how many of those inmates were pretrial detainees.
“We’re running at about 160 … awaiting trial,” Carothers said.
Hounshel said the thought is the attorneys working out of the public defender’s offices will help ease the inmate count at the jail. Those attorneys would not have any clients besides indigent defendants in need of legal help.
Carothers said Wednesday the hope is the public defender’s office will help reduce the jail population, although some changes that will be put in place on July 1 by the state might make inmate counts higher.