GREENCASTLE -- Jan. 1 will bring big changes to the public defender program in Putnam County.
Earlier this week, the budget the Putnam County Commissioners finalized and sent to the Indiana State Board of Accounts contained major cuts to the program -- so major that public defenders will no longer have office space at the courthouse, will no longer be offered health insurance as incentive to be part of the program and will no longer be provided with support staff.
"It was a financial decision, nothing more," said council member Nancy Fogle. "We're going to try it this way, and if it doesn't work we're going to have to try something else."
The budget for running the public defender program in Putnam County has soared to nearly $300,000 annually. The budget now provides $70,000 each year for each of Putnam County's two courts and $25,000 for the courts to share for cases where conflict arises and another attorney would be brought in.
The county's judges are responsible for contracting public defenders.
In accordance with the Sixth Amendment of the United States Constitution, state courts are required to provide counsel in criminal cases to defendants that are unable to afford to hire private attorneys. For many years, public defenders in Putnam County were provided with office space in the Putnam County Courthouse as well as benefits and support staff.
The council was split almost down the middle on whether or not to make the cuts to the public defender program -- Fogle, Keith Berry, Opal Sutherlin and Roger Deck voted in favor; Mitch Proctor and Darrel Thomas voted no; and Larry Parker abstained.
Proctor said although he voted against the changes, he did feel the public defender program in Putnam County "should be handled in a different way."
"The cost just kept going up," he said. "I know it needed to be changed; I'm just not absolutely certain that this was the best, most efficient way to go about it."
Proctor said he would have preferred keeping things the way they were for another year while "putting the judges on notice" that major cuts were coming.
"We did talk to the judges before doing this and they knew it was being looked at, I'm just not sure they knew it would be acted on so quickly," he said.
Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley said he "didn't want to seem like Chicken Little crying the sky is falling," but that he was concerned about how the cuts would affect the public defender program.
"It's going to be challenging," he said. "We had a system in place that we felt worked well. I hope that we will still be able to provide good representation to indigent people."
Headley said he and Superior Court Judge Denny Bridges presented alternatives to the council -- "not the Cadillac model, not the Yugo model, but the Chevy, something in between" -- but that the members who were in favor of the cuts could not be swayed.
Headley said by his estimate, the money now available for public defenders would leave the judges able to pay indigent counsel an average of $200 per case.
"I'm concerned," Headley admitted. "I don't know that I will be able to get somebody for that."
Headley pointed out that the counties the council looked at as models for public defender programs, such as Clay, Owen and Montgomery, are all smaller than Putnam County.
"I really hope it works," Headley said. "I know they're looking at this as a cost-saving measure. With the economy the way it is, everybody's looking at budgets. The council's job is to look at the nickels and dollars, and I appreciate that. They have to make huge, tough choices."
Ultimately, Headley is hopeful the quality of counsel received by the indigent charged in the Putnam County Courts will not suffer.
"You don't want a guilty person going free, but you certainly don't want an innocent man convicted," he said.
Headley and Proctor agreed that letting go of support staff was one of the most difficult facets of the cuts.
"It's very tough," Proctor said. "I don't think anyone who voted for this did it without regrets. Unfortunately, our job is to look out for the money, and sometimes you have to put your heart on hold."
Proctor said some of the council members were disturbed by such a split vote.
"They wanted to make sure that we would back the vote of the council, and of course we will," he said. "I serve at the will of the council, even if I have my own opinions about things."
Proctor pointed out that although the budget was finalized at the county level, it still doesn't have the state's seal of approval.
"The budget is never a done deal until the state signs off on it," he said.