Court mandates have led to an increase in trials.
By LAURE CIOFFI
VINDICATOR NEW CASTLE BUREAU
NEW CASTLE, Pa. -- The Lawrence County Public Defender's office should soon get some much needed help.
Harry Falls, chief public defender, asked county commissioners to approve a third part-time public defender for his office.
Commissioners agreed to create the position and plan to officially approve it next week. The part-time position will pay $19,251.18.
Changes: Falls said changes in the court system and recent court decisions have increased the workload for his office, despite having fewer clients.
The court now mandates that all plea agreements with the county district attorney's office be worked out by the Thursday before the monthly two-week trial period. If they miss that deadline, there must be a trial or a guilty plea without any assurance of a plea arrangement, Falls said.
"Some of our clients are just too irresponsible to be here on time [for a plea agreement]. That doesn't mean we can say too bad. We have to continue to represent them no matter how irresponsible they are," Falls said. This has increased the number of trials his office must take on, he said.
There are already nine people represented by public defenders going to trial this month, according to Falls.
A recent ruling in a case handled by the public defender's office also has changed the way it operates, Falls said.
A county judge has barred the public defender from asking that the charges be dismissed in a case because of insufficient evidence because the person previously waived her right to a preliminary hearing. That decision has caused the public defender's office to increase the number of preliminary hearings it attends, he said.
In an effort to save time, the office normally instructed about 90 percent of its clients to waive preliminary hearings, but now they are attending about 50 percent of the preliminary hearings to preserve the right to ask that charges be dismissed later, he said.
Staffs: Falls, who is part time, has one full-time attorney in his office, Ken Kasenter, and two part-timers, Nick Turco and Dennis A. Elisco. The office also has a full-time office manager/paralegal, an investigator and a secretary.
Falls said when he took over as chief public defender in 1991, there was a staff of seven and the district attorney's staff was nine. Now the district attorney's office has a staff of 17 people and his staff remains the same.