LIMA — The Lima chapter of the NAACP will file an official complaint with the Ohio Public Defenders’ Office alleging the current public defender system in Lima and Allen County is so broken and inefficient that it operates in violation of the Sixth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
Rev. Ron Fails, president of the Lima NAACP chapter, held a press conference Friday during which he claimed indigent criminal defendants are being deprived of effective legal counsel for a variety of reasons. Fails said members of the Lima community have come to him with complaints that attorneys are not meeting with clients in a timely fashion and that judges are dismissing out-of-hand any requests from criminal defendants to obtain new court-appointed lawyers.
“In some cases, people charged with a crime have no opportunity to meet with the lawyer representing them until five minutes before they go stand before a judge,” Fails said. “We intend to file a complaint against the Allen County Public Defenders’ Office — I call it the Public Pretenders’ Office — to draw attention to what we see as a breakdown in the system that is required by law to provide an adequate defense to indigent defendants.”
Fails said he has met on several occasions with Lima Attorney Steve Chamberlain, who heads up the local Public Defenders’ Office. “He recognizes the system is broke and needs to be fixed,” Fails alleged.
Chamberlain, who was appointed on Jan. 25, 2015, to a four-term term to lead the Allen County Public Defenders’ office, said the system is less broken than it is “under severe stress.”
Each county in Ohio handles the defense of indigent clients differently, Chamberlain said. In Allen County, the Public Defenders’ Office represents only indigent defendants who have been charged with jailable misdemeanor offenses in Lima Municipal Court. Funding for those attorneys is shared by the state of Ohio and Allen County on roughly a 50-50 basis, said Chamberlain.
In all other criminal cases involving persons who cannot afford to hire an attorney, ranging from juvenile to felony cases in common pleas court, judges appoint attorneys who are paid hourly. Their fees are submitted to the county, and the county once again is reimbursed for approximately 50 percent of that cost.
While Chamberlain said the current public defender system is under stress as the number of attorneys willing to take court-appointed cases continue to dwindle, he said those lawyers who choose to devote their talents to help indigent clients “are doing the best we can.”
Chamberlain also said some changes in the Allen County public defender program could be on the horizon.
“There’s been some discussion between the judges and the county commissioners and the judges believe that a fulltime public defenders’ office is needed,” said Chamberlain. “Governor (Mike) DeWine promised he would triple the amount of money the state spends on indigent criminal defense, but we’ll have to see what the final version of the state budget looks like. This is something that will make likely be discussed more seriously later this year.”
Chamberlain said everyone associated with the legal justice system is dedicated to upholding the constitutional rights of indigent defendants.
“Everyone is working on this, and we all would like the best system we can get. It’s just going to take a little time. But I think this stress will be relieved soon,” Chamberlain said.