Public defender board begins work

The three men given the job of establishing a public defender’s office in Jackson County plan to begin interviewing potential candidates for the attorney to lead that office next month.

The office, put in place this year by county officials, is designed to provide better representation for those who have been arrested and cannot afford an attorney and help alleviate overcrowding at the jail by moving inmates through the system more quickly.

This year’s budget for the four attorneys providing public defender service is $411,223. One estimate for the cost of operating an office has the county saving $25,000 from this year’s budget, while a second has the county spending $10,000 more than the budgeted amount.

As of June 18, 55 counties were participating in the state’s Public Defender Reimbursement program. That means they can receive 40 percent reimbursement for the costs of felony and juvenile indigent defense. All 92 counties receive 50 percent reimbursement for the cost of defending a person accused of a capital case, such as murder, who cannot afford an attorney.

The three-member board met Wednesday in Seymour, and its first action involved selecting a chairman. That job went to Mike Jordan of Seymour. The other board members are Bruce Wynn and Joe Thoele, both also of the Seymour area. The board members are not paid and none of them are attorneys.

The next step will be to select the chief public defender, who then will hire a chief deputy public defender and additional public defenders and assign cases. The office likely also will need four additional staff members, including a paralegal, an investigator and clerks, Jordan said.

He said the board’s present plan is to interview potential candidates for the chief public defender’s job in September and have that person in place as soon as possible so the office can be up and running by Jan. 1. That person will earn the same salary as the prosecutor and the judges — $134,112.

Jordan said the board is going to require whomever they decide to employ as the chief public defender to live in the county.

“If they are going to be our Jackson County public defender, then we want them to be a Jackson County person,” he said. “We don’t want commutes.”

That doesn’t mean the chief public defender has to live here now, but that person will be required to move here as soon as possible.

Jordan said currently four attorneys provide public defender services for the county on a contract basis, and some of those people might be interested in the job. The four, Joe Robertson, Brett Hays, Travis Thompson and Jeremy Seal, all have offices in Seymour.

Theole said that, since none of the board members has legal expertise, they are going to rely on assistance from county attorney Susan Bevers and look to other counties with public defender offices to see what works and what doesn’t.

“We’re going to try to find the best person for the position,” Thoele said.

He said a part of the board’s role will be to ensure public funds are being spent efficiently without any waste.

“When you’re spending someone else’s money, you need to make sure it’s being spent right,” Thoele said.

County commissioners also have begun the search for office space for the public defender’s office.

Commissioners President Jerry Hounshel said there is space for the office in the Jackson Superior Court I building in Seymour.

“We can move someone in in a week if we have to,” he said. If something else becomes available, commissioners will take a look at it, he added.

The long-term plan for the office will be to locate it in a justice/court building that will be built on county-owned property between the courthouse and courthouse annex in Brownstown. County officials are exploring options for financing that building, which is still a couple of years down the road, Hounshel said.

Once the office is up and running, the public defender board is required to meet four times a year. It will be responsible for providing legal representation to those in need of legal help as soon as possible; establishing policies and procedures for providing competent legal representation; and helping ensure the public defenders receive professional development and continue their legal educations.

Currently, 64 of the state’s 92 counties have public defender offices. Three of those counties are eligible to participate in the state reimbursement without establishing a public defender’s office because of their size (less than 10,000 people).

Nine of the 64, including Scott, are not requesting state reimbursement or currently ineligible to participate.

Jackson and Bartholomew counties are the only counties in the south-central part of the state without a public defender’s office. Johnson County also does not have a public defender’s office.

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Aubrey Woods is editor of The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at awoods@tribtown.com or 812-523-7051.