LIMA — As state legislators continue to put the finishing touches on a two-year state budget, preliminary indications point to the likelihood of a substantial increase in the funds set aside for the legal defense for indigent Ohio citizens.
And if those projections prove accurate, Allen County could be in a position to establish a fulltime Public Defenders’ office.
Tim Young, who heads up the Ohio Public Defenders office, met Tuesday with the Allen County Commissioners to discuss options for upgrades to a county public defender program that Commission Chairman Jay Begg admitted commissioners have “avoided dealing with for a long time without worrying about the level of service being provided.”
Begg said commissioners have been hearing from county common pleas court judges, who in recent years have “expressed their concern that we provide adequate defense to people who need it at the level they deserve.”
With the Ohio legislature seemingly on the verge of adding more than $155 million in funding for indigent defense programs to the biennial budget, which Young said would allow counties to be reimbursed for public defender services at levels previously unheard of, the commissioners appeared to be interested in exploring all options and proposals to implement substantial changes in the services provided locally.
In 2017, Young said, the county spent $808,000 on attorneys for indigent clients. After a 42% state reimbursement, the county ended up paying $468,000 out-of-pocket for defendants who cannot afford an attorney.
He said a county public defender office featuring 10 attorneys could be created at an estimated start-up cost of $1.45 million. Annual operating costs of approximately $1.25 million would keep the office running. Young said that if the influx of state monies comes to fruition, reimbursement rates could soar to upwards of 90 percent, which would make the office cost effective.
Lima attorney Steve Chamberlain, who was appointed on Jan. 25, 2015, to a four-term term to lead the Allen County Public Defenders’ office, said recently that the current county program is “under severe stress.”
Chamberlain said at Tuesday’s meeting with commissioners that county common pleas judges have been “talking for quite a while about the dwindling number of lawyers willing to take court-appointed cases.”
Begg asked Young if he has seen any “appetite” on the part of the state to take over the public defender program statewide. Young noted that “this is the first time I’ve seen a receptive audience in the legislature and in the governor’s office” for such a concept.
Young said the state budget is expected to be finalized by late June and that a county public defenders’ office could be started in January at the earliest if commissioners select that option.
“I think we’ve got the input from our judges that this is reaching critical status,” Begg said. “If the state is making an effort to help us with funding, we will look at it — no doubt about it.”