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MAHONING COUNTY Study on lawyers' fees is in limbo



Published: Wed, November 14, 2001 @ 12:00 a.m.



The woman who did the study is off sick and could remain off until March.

By BOB JACKSON

VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER

YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County officials have waited more than a year to find out how they can get more money back from the state for defending the indigent.

They'll have to keep waiting.

An official from the Ohio Public Defender's Office was in the county in August 2000 to study the common pleas and municipal courts. The end result was supposed to be a report on ways to improve the indigent defense system so the county can get the most dollars back from the state as possible.

Commissioners expected to have the report in hand months ago but have heard nothing.

"I guess it just fell through the cracks, unfortunately," said Commissioner Ed Reese. "We'll have to get back on it after the first of the year and see what happened."

But a spokeswoman at the public defender's office said the study is done. The problem is that Rebecca Herner, the woman who did it, has taken sick and has been unable to compile her findings into a report to hand commissioners.

Herner, director of community outreach, could be off as long as March, spokeswoman Cindy Pezzot said.

Preliminary finding: Herner said in August 2000 that just from eyeballing county records she'd identified about $150,000 the county had missed out on over the previous two years.

Administrative Judge Maureen A. Cronin of common pleas court said she'd forgotten about the study, but will be curious to see what kind of findings Herner made.

The public defender's office is responsible for seeing that people unable to pay a lawyer have someone to defend them at taxpayers' expense in criminal cases. The public defender does not work in civil matters.

Local system: Mahoning County does not use a public defender to represent the indigent. Instead, judges appoint defense attorneys to represent people who the court determines are too poor to pay.

Those lawyers are paid $30 an hour for out-of-court expenses and $40 an hour for time spent in court.

At the end of the case, the lawyer submits a detailed fee slip to the judge for a signature. The lawyer then takes it to the auditor's office for payment.

The auditor's office then submits the slip to the state public defender's office for partial reimbursement. The amount of repayment depends on the total money available from the state and the total number of claims submitted from counties.

Ohio law requires that fee certificates be submitted to the state within 90 days of the case's completion. Any submitted later than that no longer qualify for reimbursement.

Judge Cronin said the appointed attorneys in Mahoning County often complain that they are underpaid compared with Ohio counties of similar size. The county can't afford to pay them more under current financial conditions, though, she added.

If Herner's recommendations can help the county recover more money from the state, judges might be able to consider increasing the pay, Judge Cronin said.

bjackson@vindy.com




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