Hourly rates for court-appointed defense lawyers were set last in 1986.
By ROGER G. SMITH
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- Some plumbers, electricians and mechanics won't touch your business for the $30 an hour that a court-appointed defense lawyer makes in Mahoning County.
County officials are considering increasing hourly rates for lawyers appointed to represent indigent clients. Many in the justice system say a change is a couple of decades overdue.
County Commissioner John McNally IV, chairman of the group working to solve the county jail overcrowding issue, said court-appointed lawyer fees will be a topic in the wake of recent raises for prosecutors.
"We realize that's a problem," he said.
Court-appointed defense lawyers make $30 per hour for their work out of court and $40 per hour when they handle cases inside courtrooms.
Those rates were set in 1986 and haven't changed since.
The topic re-emerged in recent weeks when county commissioners approved hiring five additional assistant prosecutors, one for each common pleas court. The goal is to process cases faster and speed the move of inmates from the county jail to state prison or other sentences.
With new prosecutors came new salaries. Annual salaries for assistant prosecutors were raised from an average of $45,800 to $54,000, plus benefits. New prosecutors start at $42,500.
The raises were needed to keep staff and recruit new qualified prosecutors, said Prosecutor Paul J. Gains. The $54,000 average remains $6,000 less annually than city prosecutors make handling misdemeanor cases, he added.
Defense lawyers agree that prosecutors deserved the raise. They argue, however, that they need an increase as much or more.
Prosecutors have investigators and expert witnesses available to them, said Atty. Martin E. Yavorcik, who leads the Mahoning County Criminal Defense Lawyers Association.
Defense lawyers, however, have to pay for investigators themselves. They also must pay for any expert witnesses when the court declines to reimburse them. Experts are important to defense cases and could stand to be used more than they are, Yavorcik said.
"You could use them in many cases," he said. "I think there's some disparity there."
The bottom line is adequate representation versus the budget, said defense Atty. Dennis DiMartino.
"How can you do it with a lopsided scale?" he asked.
Judges would support pay increases for court-appointed defense lawyers, said Judge Maureen A. Cronin, the common pleas court administrative judge.
That support would come knowing that additional spending on indigent defendants isn't always popular with taxpayers, she said.
A core of about 10 lawyers routinely takes court appointments, she said. Many of them are younger and lack experience. It's hard to get experienced lawyers to take some of the more complicated cases, she said. Higher fees would lure more experienced lawyers to take court appointments, she said.
"We need those seasoned lawyers to stay involved," Judge Cronin said.
If commissioners can afford the new prosecutors, they can raise rates for the opposing appointed counsel, said Atty. John B. Juhasz. He has taken court-appointed cases for 20 years.
Lawyers can spend more than they make representing indigent clients once office expenses are factored, he said.
"The defense lawyers are eating the overhead," Juhasz said.
Juhasz said the process to raise rates starts with the Mahoning County Bar Association's court committee. The committee makes recommendations to the bar's trustees. Bar trustees forward those recommendations to common pleas court judges. Judges send the suggestions to commissioners.
Every few years an increase is suggested, but lawyers are told the timing isn't right or there is no money, he said.
Juhasz said arguments for creating a public-defenders office always arise when court-appointment fees are broached. That move, however, almost assuredly would cost the county more than raising the hourly pay for court-appointments, he said.
Long-time defense lawyer J. Gerald Ingram doesn't do court-appointed work any more but is a bar association trustee.
Mahoning County's rates are the lowest in Ohio for any county that doesn't have a public-defenders office, he said.
Commissioner McNally, who is a lawyer, said he doesn't know what the right hourly rate might be. Commissioners will rely on jail working group members for a perspective, he said.