LIMA — The Allen County Commissioners will continue deliberating how best to improve the state of indigent defense in 2020, with the possibility of establishing a full-time public defender’s office still under consideration.
Allen County currently relies on court-appointed attorneys to represent most indigent defendants — or clients who have been charged with a crime but cannot afford to hire their own attorney — even in juvenile and felony cases. The county’s public defender’s office is small, focused on jail-able misdemeanor cases in Lima Municipal Court.
The county spent just over $800,000 on indigent defense in 2017, the majority of which was dedicated to court-appointed attorneys.
Allen County Public Defender Steve Chamberlain said it’s getting harder and harder to find attorneys willing to take on court-appointed cases. But establishing a full-time public defender’s office would mean having “staff attorneys that do nothing but work for these clients.”
Chamberlain presented three proposals toward that end, which could cost anywhere from $970,000 to $1.2 million depending on the size of the staff and salaries offered.
The Ohio Legislature has set aside $275 million over two years to support indigent defense, an effort to help counties raise hourly rates for court-appointed attorneys or hire more public defenders.
The legislature intends to reimburse counties for about 70% of indigent defense costs in 2020, which would then rise to 90% in 2021. Previously, Ohio would only reimburse up to 50% of a county’s indigent defense expenses.
If funding holds, Chamberlain projects Allen County may spend less on indigent defense by establishing a public defender’s office.
The most expensive proposal — which would consist of one public defender, seven assistant public defenders, two part-time attorneys, an investigator and three office staff — could cost about $1.2 million annually in salaries, benefits and overhead.
According to Chamberlain’s analysis, Allen County could spend as little as $124,000 per year if the state upholds its 90% reimbursement commitment. Even if the state scaled its commitment back to 50%, the local cost would still only be about $620,000, according to the analysis.
But Allen County Commission President Cory Noonan is concerned that as more counties hire more public defenders, the state may not be able to uphold its end of the bargain. And there’s always uncertainty with the next biennial budget.
“That pot doesn’t grow,” Noonan said. “So the reimbursement of yesterday, if you go forward is going to get lower … There’s a lot in the air. We have to go into this understanding, (we) appreciate the reimbursement, the money coming back from the state, but at the end of the day we might be on the hook.”
Noonan said he’d like to keep the county’s indigent defense spending as close to previous years as possible.
Chamberlain and the Allen County Public Defender’s Commission are expected to meet with the Allen County Commissioners again next month to solidify a formal proposal for the commissioners to consider.
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.