Taxpayers face rising costs for public defenders - News, Weather & Sports

Taxpayers face rising costs for public defenders

LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - What's the price of justice? In Louisville taxpayers are spending millions of dollars a year defending accused criminals who can't afford an attorney. In fact an increasing number of accused criminals are getting a free defense. One that can be very effective.

Innocent until proven guilty. And a country willing to pay to get you off the hook.

"One of our highest values is that the right to council is essential if the state wants to prosecute somebody," said Ed Monahan,  chief administrator for the Kentucky Department for Public Advocacy, the agency that oversees the state's public defenders.

In 1963 the Supreme Court unanimously ruled states had to fund free legal counsel for criminal defendants who couldn't afford it. 50 years later, the public defender system in Kentucky is a statewide network of attorneys, investigators and advocates that cost taxpayers $41,500,000 a year.

In 2011, it was public defenders who successfully fought to have Kerry Porter's murder conviction overturned. In 2012, public defenders worked cases for more than 185,000 of Kentucky's accused.

Daniel T. Goyette, Chief Public Defender in Louisville Metro, said public defenders represent 50% of defendants in the lower courts, 70% in higher courts and 90% of juvenile cases. And often, with success especially in Jefferson County.

Still, public defenders themselves say there is a perception they aren't as good as private attorneys. But a data analysis of more than 2,200 court rulings in Jefferson County uncovered people represented by public defenders are found guilty at a nearly identical rate as those who hire private attorneys. Those results mirror a 2010 National Law Review study.

"We have one of the best, most qualified, most efficiently run offices in the nation," said Steve Schroering, a former prosecutor turned private defense attorney.

Schroering said in some cases public defenders are more knowledgeable and effective than their private counterparts.

"Some of the newer private attorneys do not have the experience level that members of the public defenders office have," Schroering said.

To get a public defender defendants fill out this three page affidavit of your finances. They hand it to the judge and testify, under oath, that it's true. There's no investigation and no data on the percentage of public defender requests being approved.

One thing is for sure. More defendants are asking taxpayers to pay for their attorney than ever before. Records show the public defender caseload in Louisville rose from 38,905 in 2009 to 40,771 in 2012 even though the overall number of court cases in Kentucky dropped.

The bill is rising too, from $5,875,700 in Jefferson County in 2009 to $6,403,300 in 2012. That doesn't count what public defenders spend on expert witnesses and background checks.

Public defenders say it breaks down to about $211 per case. They say overall the money spent on the public defenders office is just over 3% of the funding to Kentucky's justice system budget.

"We need additional funding," Monahan said.

He's going to be asking state legislators to increase their budget. Additional money that Monahan said will allow public defenders to process cases quicker, handle them more efficiently and reduce corrections costs by increasing the number of defendants who get released from jail before trial.

"We could save this system a huge amount of additional money if we could spend a little more time, sooner, on these cases." Monahan said.

Monahan said legislation passed in 2011 to increase the number of defendants who got pre-trail release saved counties $25,000,000 by bringing down jail costs. He also said court appearance rates held steady and the percentage of defendants who stayed out of trouble awaiting trial actually went up slightly.

Monahan hopes to nearly double the number of public defender offices in Kentucky by 2020 while still maintaining public safety.

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