PUBLIC DEFENDERS Work grows; funds decline
Counties are paying more, while state contributions have decreased.
By JEFF ORTEGA
COLUMBUS -- People who need public defenders will pay a $25 fee starting this fall, but that small amount likely will have little impact on what an advocate for county governments says he fears are skyrocketing costs for indigent defense.
That's because the numbers of the poor who need criminal defense representation continue to increase, and those costs are increasingly being picked up by counties, says John Leutz, a senior policy analyst with the County Commissioners Association of Ohio.
"The caseloads continue to increase while the state commitment continues to decrease," Leutz said.
In some counties, county public defenders and court-appointed lawyers represent the indigent. In other counties, the county contracts with the state public defender's office for criminal defense of the poor.
State figures put the number of indigent defense cases at 395,339 statewide in 2004, a 2.68-percent increase from the 385,015 in 2003. The 2003 figure was a 16.4-percent spike from 2002, according to the figures from the Ohio Public Defender's Office.
In 2004, the state appropriated $31.4 million for indigent defense or 32.1 percent of what indigent defense cost that year, the Ohio Public Defender's Office said. In 2003, the state appropriated $30.008 million or 31.9 percent of indigent defense costs in the state, the state public defender's office said.
The remainder of indigent defense costs are subsidized by already cash-strapped county governments, Leutz said.
At its inception in the 1970s, the state-county split had been about 50 percent, but the percentage of state support has eroded in recent years, county advocates say.
In the recently enacted $51.2 billion state budget that runs through June 2007, lawmakers earmarked $31.08 million in each budget year for indigent defense costs, a 6-percent cut from 2005 funding levels of $33.05 million. The 2005 state funding level is 32.4 percent of the state's indigent defense costs, county advocates say.
The new state budget also creates a $25 application fee which will be collected beginning Sept. 29 from those claiming to be indigent, a fee that is expected to bring in about $1.8 million annually to help pay for indigent defense.
But with caseloads on the rise, county advocates fear that need will outstrip the funding, which could require more funding from counties.
"It's a greater strain on the counties' general fund budget," Leutz said. "It's got to go there as opposed to other options."
"This is not a discretionary program," said John Alge, director of administration for the Ohio Public Defender's Office. "The county has to do it. Whatever the state doesn't pay, the counties have to pick up."
Roughly 60 percent of counties' general fund budgets are already earmarked for justice-related purposes, and increased costs could further strain those funds, county advocates say.
County commissioners around the state are paying attention.
"We're pretty tight the way it is," said Tony Burkley, a commissioner in rural Paulding County in northwest Ohio.
"We've made personnel cuts and budget cuts in various departments to meet our budget goals," Burkley said. "We'll deal with what we have to deal with."
Anthony Traficanti, president of the commissioners in Mahoning County, said he's been told that the county will be able to sustain its indigent defense costs but that it could change depending on the number of crimes committed.
The possibility of increased indigent defense costs in the county is worrisome, he said.
"Absolutely, it's a concern," Traficanti said.
County advocates hope for change in the future.
"We want the state to accept and re-establish the state's responsibility to provide half of the cost of indigent defense," Leutz said.
Senate President Bill M. Harris, (R-Ashland), said county advocates have not raised their concerns with him about potentially increasing local costs for indigent defense.
But he said he's willing to listen.
"It was a very thin budget," Harris said of the recently enacted two year state- spending plan. "We tried to structure it to be fiscally responsible."