(BEDFORD) – The Lawrence County Council and Lawrence County’s Public Defenders Agency are trying to work together to find a solution to the county being out of compliance with the Public Defender Commission.
The Lawrence County Council members called a special meeting Monday night to hear about the issues surrounding the public defenders office.
The Public Defender Commission, in a letter dated October 5, 2020, warned the Lawrence County Defender Agency that unless corrective action is taken the county is at risk of losing reimbursements for the county’s public defenders.
This would make the second time the county has not been in compliance with the standards of the commission in 2020.
The Lawrence County defender board has 90 days to correct the issues or the eligibility will terminate at the close of the fiscal year. The public defender board consists of Brent Steele, Eugene McCracken, and Bill Spreen.
Lawrence County is reimbursed 40 percent of the salaries, for public defenders. Lawrence County has received more than $2.5 million in reimbursement from the Public Defenders fund since it was originally agreed to by the commission standards.
Bruce Andis Chief Public Defender explained why the office is having a high turnover and offered his solutions to address the problem.
The county is out of compliance on the following issues:
- Caseloads are not in compliance because Bruce Andis and John Drier have more than 111percent and 125 percent of the caseload allowable.
- Compensation in Lawrence County is not in alignment with the prosecutor’s office standards, contributing to attorney vacancies and exacerbating caseload compliance issues.
Andis says the number of caseloads these attorneys work lead to attorney frustration, disillusionment by clients, and undermine the integrity of the legal system.
All of Lawrence County’s judges – Circuit Court Judge Nathan Nikirk, Superior Court I Judge John Plummer III, Superior Court II Judge Robert Cline, and Ann Gouty Juvenile Referee – addressed the Lawrence County Council and advised them the importance of the Public Defender Agency.
The CHINS or Children in Need of Services cases require each party to be represented in the case. By law, each parent and child must be allowed to have an attorney. In some families, there may be four or more attorneys involved in one CHINS case.
Public Defender board member Brent Steele also addressed the Lawrence County Council on his history as a public defender and how it has evolved since he began practice in 1976.
The public defender agencies save the county a lot of money, if the county were to lose the public defender agency the cost to the county could be in the millions, Steele said.
Circuit Court Judge Nathan Nikirk also spoke saying the three courts depend on public defenders.
The rate for an attorney if not represented by the public defender agency, by law the rate is $90 an hour for those who cannot afford an attorney, said Judge Nikirk. Without a public defender agency, the costs of murder, rape, molestation cases will be astronomical for the county, he added.
“Everyone has the constitutional right to have an attorney. As a Judge, I will determine whether the defendant, will need to be represented by a public defender, especially in felony cases,” said Judge John Plummer.
JudgePlummer started out as a public defender when he began practicing law back on June 4, 1986.
To address this issue Public Defender Bruce Andis has proposed the following:
- Caseload compliance – Hire two support staff members which include one investigator and one social worker. Or hire one attorney.
- Address pay disparity – $ 5,000 stipend chief’s public defender salary.
- Six public defenders salary of $75,000 minimum salary which will cost $450,000 or 7 salaries at a cost of $525,000.
The proposal will add approximately $103,000 to the 2021 budget.
The salary ordinance for the county would have to be amended should this proposal be approved.
The Lawrence Council members, public defenders, and county judges agreed to keep open communication with one another.
Lawrence County Council president Scott Smith told those who attended that a decision would be made this month.