LIMA — Allen County Commission President Cory Noonan spoke to the Allen County Bar Association on Friday about the county’s efforts to improve indigent defense, an ongoing dilemma around Ohio.
Allen County last fall raised its hourly court-appointed attorney rates, hoping to attract more attorneys willing to represent indigent clients.
The commissioners will continue to monitor the success or shortcomings of that decision as they consider whether to hire more public defenders instead.
Most indigent defendants are represented by court-appointed attorneys in Allen County, which maintains a small public defender office out of Lima Municipal Court.
But fewer and fewer attorneys are willing to represent court-appointed clients, the commissioners have learned, as years of stagnant pay has made indigent cases less attractive than private practice.
“We’re still examining that (court-appointed pay increase). But the other option is doing a full-time public defender’s office. We would actually hire those attorneys to have a full-time office,” Noonan said. “(Public defenders) can dedicate that time for those in need and be able to provide them full-time salary, hoping that that will entice attorneys to come serve the public defender’s office.”
The Ohio legislature has set aside additional indigent defense funding to lessen the burden on counties, which in the past were responsible for about 50% of court-appointed attorney fees or public defender salaries.
If funding holds, the legislature intends to cover about 70% of indigent defense costs in 2020 and 90% of those costs in 2021.
The commissioners have not decided whether they stick with the current system or hire more attorneys to staff a full-time public defender’s office, which could cost anywhere from $970,000 to $1.2 million before state reimbursement each year, according to projections offered to the commissioners earlier this year.
The full cost to the county will hinge on whether the state fulfills its commitment to shoulder more of the burden for indigent defense spending.
Noonan does not anticipate a decision until a formal proposal outlining the size, cost and location of a public defender’s office has been received.
“Once those items are identified,” Noonan said, “if it makes sense for us to go that way we want to do that in the most time efficient manner as possible.”
Reach Mackenzi Klemann at 567-242-0456.