Courts hit with increasing public defender costs

By CANDY NEAL
cneal@dcherald.com

The cost of providing a public defender to people who cannot afford an attorney continues to increase.

“The number of cases coming through the courts each year have steadily grown,” Dubois Circuit Judge Nathan Verkamp said. “We probably haven’t done a good job of each year increasing our budgets accordingly. We’ve just stuck with the old numbers and at the end of the year make adjustments.”

Each court had $108,000 in its pauper counsel budget at the beginning of 2019. In addition, there is a pauper counsel appeal budget, for cases that are appealed, which the judges explained are many cases ending in conviction. That fund started at $25,000 for superior court and $60,000 for circuit court.

In the first two months of this year, the superior court spent $27,000 of its pauper counsel budget and $15,768 of its appeals budget. That does not include the stack of bills for the month of March, which will soon be paid. Superior Court is planning to ask the Dubois County Council for a $20,000 appropriation to help with pauper counsel.

Circuit court spent $14,000 of its pauper counsel budget and $59,657 of its appeals budget in the first two months of this year.

Everyone has a right to legal representation in court. And when someone cannot afford that representation, the court must assign an attorney to the case. That cost comes from the courts’ budget.

Not only are the number of cases increasing, but the availability of pauper counsel under contract has drastically changed. Each court has normally had two attorney offices under contract for public defender cases. This year, each court lost a firm.

Dubois Superior Court contracts with Ripstra Law Office and had Ippoliti Law Office under contract. But in November, Victor Ippoliti was elected as Spencer County’s prosecuting attorney, a position he started in January.

“As a result of winning the election, he could no longer serve as a public defender,” Dubois Superior Judge Mark McConnell said. “When he had to withdraw for all those cases that were pending. I had to replace him with hourly attorneys. As a result, until all of those cases are finished up, we will have to pay hourly fees to those attorneys.”

Dubois Circuit Court uses Lindeman Law Office for pauper counsel. It also had Schnarr Law Office under contract. But Greg Schnarr had to end his association to become the new Dubois County attorney in January.

The courts must pay attorneys who are not under contract an hourly rate. The rate is $90 per hour, which is cheaper than what attorneys normally make.

“In their private practice, they can make two or three times that amount. By taking a case, they are doing a public service by helping the courts,” McConnell said. “And thank God they are willing to step up and do that. But they’re not willing to do that to the extent that they have to give up their practice.”

Finding another law firm willing to be a contracted public defender is a challenge, Verkamp said.

“We’re getting to a point that there is a shortage of trial attorneys,” he said. “Everyone is so busy that they don’t want to do the contract. So we have to farm that out for $90 per hour.”

The possibility of conflict of interest increases when the pool of trial attorneys decreases.

“You might have a drug bust where there are two or three defendants who are arrested at the same time. They all have to have a different attorney because they may have different interests in the case, or one may want to testify against another,” McConnell said. “Before, if there were two defendants, I could make Ripstra Law Office the attorney on one and Ippoliti Law Office on the other. Now, since we have only one public defendant in this court, if there is a conflict, I have to go back and hire an hourly attorney to handle that case.

“The more defendants there are, the more chances there are for a conflict of interest,” he added.

The state had a task force study public defense matters. That study yielded legislation proposing that the state take over all appeals through a public defender agency; reimburse the county for some of the costs in criminal cases; and allow counties to pool resources to form a public defender agency for an area.

The legislation was approved by the House Courts and Criminal Code Committee and sent to the House Ways and Means Committee; it did not come out of that committee.

In the meantime, the courts continue to deal with the costs of public defender attorneys. The judges understand their importance.

“It’s one of the things that’s near and dear to me,” Verkamp said, “because I did criminal defense work and pauper work when I was in private practice.”




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