County considers public defender’s office

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

Having a county public defender and office could possibly save the county money on pauper counsel costs, according to a recent study. It could also cut down on the perception that the defender is not independent of the state and the courts.

“The judge appoints the public defender,” Dubois County Commissioner Chad Blessinger said during last week’s commissioners meeting. “The perception sometimes is that the judge is a member of the state and the prosecutor is a member of the state. The person may potentially feel not being independently represented.”

Blessinger had been looking into the idea of having a public defender’s office, but slowed his research when the coronavirus became prominent. He shared some thoughts with the commissioners about the idea, which the University of Cincinnati’s Corrections Institute determined in a recent study is something the county needed.

“Having a public defender who’s not [hired by[ the judge would give the appearance of having a little more separation,” Blessinger said.

By law, if a defendant is entitled to having an attorney in a court case but can’t afford to hire one, the courts hire pauper counsel for the person.

In recent years, the costs of having pauper counsel have increased because there are many more cases. Last year, both courts requested additional appropriations because the $108,000 each had in their budgets was just about depleted by April. Circuit Judge Nathan Verkamp and Superior Court Judge Mark McConnell also said that it can be challenging to find attorneys who will go under contract with the courts because the hourly rate is less than they normally make.

If the county did establish a public defender’s office and position, the state would reimburse some of the office’s cost back to the county.

“Even if it cost us more to have a public defender’s office, we would get additional value from it, hopefully,” Blessinger said, “and we would get some reimbursement. So we may be ahead of the game financially.”

Plus, the defender would definitely be present at a defendant’s initial hearing. “It won’t be a situation where you go to your initial hearing and the judge says that one will be appointed,” Blessinger said. “Now, the public defender will be there. So it keeps the process moving a little faster.”

Commissioner Nick Hostetter inquired if the county would hire just one attorney as the public defender. “I’m assuming there would be other public defenders. One person couldn’t handle them all,” he said.

There would likely be a public defender, possibly a second attorney and a secretary for the office, Blessinger said. If the county decided to move forward on this, the office would ultimately be located in the future justice center.

“The way I would look at the public defender is that he is the head of public defense,” Blessinger said. “[The defender] would be in charge of getting local attorneys contracted to do the work.”

Blessinger said he’s checked with other counties that have established an office. One said it was very expensive for the county. But other counties said the system worked well, he said, “because they’ve been in situations like us, where they can’t find a sufficient number of local attorneys to take the contract work.”

The commissioners will continue looking into the idea.




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