MAHONING COUNTY Commission considers opening a public-defenders office
The bigger focus for the community should be addressing the issues that contribute to crime, rather than how to pay for it at the end, two officials said.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Mahoning County officials got a look last week at the highs and lows of the county's court system.
The rate of violent crimes, especially murder, in Mahoning County is the highest per capita in the state.
But the money paid by the county for court-appointed lawyers to represent indigent criminal defendants is near the lowest in the state.
That's what county commissioners were told recently by a representative of the Ohio Public Defender's Office.
Officials agree that both situations need to change, but no one's sure just how to do it.
Ohio law requires that indigent defendants -- those who are unable to pay a lawyer -- have someone to represent them, at taxpayers' expense, in criminal cases.
How it works here
In Mahoning County, judges appoint lawyers to defend people who are determined to be indigent. Those lawyers are paid $30 an hour for out-of-court expenses and $40 an hour for their in-court time.
According to the public defender's office, that's one of the lowest rates among the state's 88 counties.
Five other counties -- Clinton, Scioto, Stark, Summit and Vinton -- pay the same. Only Pike County in southern Ohio pays less. Most counties pay $10 an hour more, and some pay $20 an hour more.
"That surprised me," said Judge James C. Evans of common pleas court. "I knew we were low, but I thought we were on a par with most other counties."
A sore spot
Atty. John B. Juhasz, chairman of the county bar association's courts committee, said low pay for court-appointed lawyers has been a sore spot among defense attorneys for years. The rate hasn't been increased in nearly 20 years.
It's gotten to the point that several experienced lawyers who once accepted court appointments for indigent cases have stopped taking them because they don't make enough to cover their costs.
"At some point these lawyers aren't even breaking even," he said. "The rate has to go up."
Judge Evans said that if all the defense attorneys would band together and refuse to accept court appointments, "We'd be in a real dilemma."
Judge Maureen A. Cronin agreed that there's a problem and said, "It's time to raise the fees."
She said judges will discuss the matter soon and make a recommendation to county commissioners, who control the purse strings.
Commissioners say they understand the situation but have a problem of their own. They are faced with an uncertain financial future that hinges on whether voters renew a 0.5 percent sales tax in November.
If the tax is defeated, there will hardly be enough money to keep things as they are, let alone cover an increase.
That's why they're considering formation of a local public defender's office that would be staffed with full-time lawyers for indigent people instead of using court-appointed lawyers.
The state public defender's office estimated it would cost about $1.2 million a year to run such an office. That's if it had 13 lawyers to cover all courts in the county, including municipal and county misdemeanor courts.
County Administrator Gary Kubic said the county is projected to spend about $1.2 million for indigent defense this year. It spent $918,593 last year, $886,529 in 2000 and $918,269 in 1999.
Juhasz, though, said he disagrees with the public defender's cost estimate and thinks the cost would actually be higher. He thinks it's best to stick with the court appointment system.
He also thinks 13 lawyers would be too few to adequately keep up with the demand for legal work.
"If you set up an office like that it would just be a factory," Juhasz said. "The quality of representation would suffer."
As a former county administrator and budget director, Juhasz said he understands the commissioners' quandary.
"But I know that when push comes to shove with money in county government, you have to prioritize things according to legal and constitutional requirements," he said.
Indigent defense is constitutionally guaranteed so must be paid for, said Commissioner Ed Reese.
Juhasz said one way to cut costs with the current system might be to hire someone whose full-time job would be screening people who say they are indigent. Currently, judges conduct an inquiry from the bench, but Juhasz said they don't have the time or resources to do a thorough background check.
"That could be money well spent to help us save money in the long run," he said.
Focus on crime
Commissioner Vicki Allen Sherlock said it's inevitable that judges will come to the board for more money to pay court-appointed lawyers. But she said all local officials should be more concerned about the larger issue of the high incidence of violent crimes, especially murders.
"Everybody needs to come together and look at these numbers because they are disturbing," she said.
The comments about the county's violent crime were made last week by Rebecca Herner, director of county outreach for the Ohio Public Defender's Office, during a meeting with commissioners and judges.
Herner, who also prepared the cost estimates for establishing a local public defender's office, could not be reached to comment.
Kubic agreed with Sherlock that the dollars-and-cents issue is important and pressing, but local leaders need to look further.
"My concern is that we as a community are not addressing the issues that contribute to crime," Kubic said. "We'd better start figuring out how to reduce the crime instead of how to pay for it at the end."
That means looking at such elements as education, employment opportunities and the breakdown of families.