Lawrence County Council Will Decide How To Proceed With Public Defender Agency

(LAWRENCE CO.) – The Lawrence County Council must decide whether to continue the Public Defender Agency or contract public defenders to provide defense counsel to the county’s indigent in court cases.

Lawrence County Council members will make that decision on Tuesday night at 6:30 p.m.

Sixty-five out of the 92 counties in Indiana use the Indiana Public Defender Commission to help provide funding for public defenders.

Lawrence County has used this service since 2011. According to officials, 40 percent of the costs of public defenders are reimbursed back to the county by the commission.

Lawrence County received $2,471,628.68 for public defenders since 2011. In 2019-2020 Lawrence County received $313,586 in reimbursements.

Source: Indiana Public Defenders Commission

The benefits of joining the Public Defenders Commission include:

  • 12 percent lower per-capita jail population
  • 20 percent lower rate of ” Low Recidivism Risk” individuals in the Department of Corrections
  • Nearly three weeks fewer time children are placed outside of the home in Children In Need of Services (CHINS) cases
  • 64 days shorter Department of Correction (DOC) commitments.

The Lawrence County Superior Courts use the public defender’s agency 75 percent of the time in criminal cases out of Lawrence County Superior Court I and II. At this time misdemeanors are not reimbursed by the State of Indiana.

The judge of those courts will determine whether or not the person will retain a public defender.

Lawrence County Councilman Rick Butterfield questioned Judge John Plummer III on how the courts ensure that the defendant actually needs a public defender during a special meeting held last week.

Judge Plummer stated that each person signs an affidavit about their income and financial resources, if that person is found lying they are held accountable.

“We know of only one case, where a person lied to us in the several years,” said Lawrence County Circuit Court Judge Nathan Nikirk

The reimbursement from the Indiana Public Defenders Commission is threatened because the county is not in compliance.

The county is out of compliance on the following issues:

  • The Lawrence County Public Defender Board has not met for more than a year. The public defender board includes Brent Steele, Eugene McCracken, and Bill Spreen. That board has since met to look at these issues.
  • Caseloads are not in compliance because Bruce Andis and John Drier have more than 111 percent 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.

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 current budget for the public defender’s office is $747,401.

The proposal will place Bruce Andis’s salary at $161,150. Andis’s salary in 2020 was $149,039.

Lawrence County Prosecutor Samuel Arp’s salary is paid by the State of Indiana. His salary is $152,571.02. The budget for the prosecutor’s office is $465,541.

The deputy prosecutor for Lawrence County average pay is $69,000.

In June 2020 the county was ordered to pay public defenders at a rate of $90 an hour when the Lawrence County Public Defender Agency was ordered not to take on any more cases.

“It is not optional,” Judge Plummer III said in an email. “As such, the Lawrence Superior Court I will be directly appointing special public defenders in all remaining new misdemeanor and felony cases for indigent defendants this quarter at a rate of $90 per hour.  I will be ordering all special public defender claims to be paid by Lawrence County,” said Plummer back in June 2020.

The salaries for judges for Lawrence County is paid by the State of Indiana in a total amount of $157,578.00.

In another matter, the Lawrence County Council will also be deciding on the mandates issued by retired Judge William Sleva which also will increase the salary of the Superior Court II staff.