At a recent Putnam County Council meeting Judge Matthew Headley presented the council with a variety of options in hopes of addressing the struggling public defender system.
Public defenders are assigned in all criminal cases, child in need of services (CHINS), juvenile delinquencies, termination of parental right's and mental health cases when needed.
"There has always been a public defender system," Headley said. "A lot of people think a person should not have a free lawyer. However, the Constitution says we have to provide them with adequate representation. You deserve that under our Constitution and that's the bottom line."
The public defender system in Putnam County has seen many changes over the past several years. The most recent change in came in 2010, as major cuts resulted in the public defenders no longer having office space at the courthouse, no health insurance as incentive to be part of the program and no support staff provided.
Public defenders then went to a straight flat rate, which was given depending on the level of the case they were assigned.
It was noted that it was purely a financial decision, the Putnam County Council is now having to address the issue once again due to an increase of public defender cases and not having enough staff.
"The cases are up," Headley said. "The public perceives that a public defender is only for a criminal defendant. I would agree with the public that the majority of the case numbers are that way, but there are also juvenile cases, mental health commitments and there are also Department of Child Services cases. Anytime they're going to lose their liberty or some of the constitutional rights it kicks in."
Headley noted that, before being assigned a public defender, it is required that a person be asked for their sources of income and any assets they may have to have them pay for their own attorney.
In hopes of ratifying the situation at hand, an increasing caseload with only two public defenders for each court, council members along with Judge Denny Bridges, Commissioner Nancy Fogle, Putnam County Councilman Roger Deck and Judge Headley came up with four options that the council may choose to go with.
Option one would be to convert the current system to be under the State Public Defenders System, which has the most assurances of adequate legal representation. The net cost to the county would be around $300,000, the most costly of all the options.
"It's a good system," said Headley. "It's used in a lot of other counties. This system has guidelines that only so many cases can be assigned to a public defender of certain kinds based on the kind of case it is and the type of experience the lawyer has."
Montgomery County currently uses this system. It was noted that for the last two years the annual cost for this option in Montgomery County was $420,000 per year, which includes attorneys at $360,000 and $60,000 in incident costs.
With this system the county will be reimbursed at a certain rate for the cases. However, only felony and child services cases are reimbursed. Montgomery County received $115,000 back per year from the state, thus its net costs were $305,000.
"The state will pay the county back as long as you agree to go under their restrictions," said Headley. "Yeah, the county is going to get some money back, but it's going to cost the county originally a lot more money to do it. You only get reimbursed for felonies and I believe for department of child services cases. Out of the thousands of misdemeanors that are filed for every year, we wouldn't get reimbursed for that."
Option two would be to hire two more public defenders at the rate of $35,000 per year, which is what they are currently being paid. As of now, there are only two public defenders for each court.
"We need two more public defenders just because of the ever increasing amount of cases that people are asking for a public defender that qualify," Headley explained. "There's been just a shift to more people requesting a public defender percentage wise to the cases being filed. People aren't working like they use to. A lot of times families would come up with the necessary amount of money to hire a lawyer for the accused and they just don't do that like they used to. That's probably economy driven. Wages are kind of flat around Greencastle."
Option three is to pay each attorney a certain amount, which has yet to be determined, for each case that he or she completes. The number will also depend on the classification with the compensation increasing as the level of crime increases.
"CHINS cases would be a different rate, most likely hourly or when certain stages of the cases have been concluded since these cases usually take approximately one year to 18 months," Headley said. "Under this system, the attorney would know compensation but we have no idea how many cases are going to be filed each year."
Under this system, the attorney would know what compensation they would be given. However, it is unknown the amount of cases that will be filed each year.
"It may be efficient in that the attorney knows that no matter what time is put into the case, his or her flat rate will be paid," said Headley. "It could be inefficient in that attorney doesn't put enough time on this case. They would just get a rotation."
Option four is a hybrid of the previous system before the changes in 2010. Two secretaries would be hired and the public defenders would once again have an office somewhere in the county.
"We would again have a public defender office(s) and have a staff again, but we would have to rent some space," said Headley. "There is no room in the courthouse. With the closure of the Annex, there's just hardly any space anywhere. The commissioners and the council have done a great job of being able to put people where they can, frankly. I applaud them for that. It was tough."
Each secretary would be a full-time county employee. However, due to ethical rules having just one office would not be allowed.
This option would most likely cost approximately $90,000 for the support staff, which includes salary and benefits, $10,000-15,000 for rent and $10,000-15,000 for supplies. This number would be added on to the current amount that the four public defenders are now receiving.
"This option would most likely be the 'middle of the road' approach, middle costs and adequate services," said Headley. "It would not be the Cadillac nor the Ugo, but the Chevy."
The lawyers who have previously been public defenders enjoy having the support staff because it frees up their time. Headley noted that it is important to have a support staff to help keep on top of the communication between the lawyers and their clients.
The council tabled the issue during the November meeting as several of the council members wanted to meet with Judge Headley and Judge Bridges in hopes of receiving more definite numbers before making a decision.
"They've been very receptive to listening to us," Headley explained. "They know we have problems, but at the same time we know they have problems, which is money. There's no pot of gold."
It is likely that either Judge Headley or Judge Bridges will attend the Tuesday, Dec. 11 meeting at the courthouse in hopes of moving forward and receiving a decision.