Criminal and juvenile cases require the court-appointment of counsel if the defendant is indigent. When this occurs, judges must select from a relatively small pool of attorneys who are potentially eligible for appointment.
Fifty-five of Indiana’s ninety-two counties have joined the state-funded public defender system and committed to caseload maximums, pay parity with the county prosecutor’s office for salaried public defenders, or minimum pay standards for hourly public defenders. Thirty-seven counties have, to date, chosen to remain outside of the Indiana Public Defender Commission system. Now that the Indiana Public Defender Commission (Commission) is in its twenty-sixth year, it is a good time to reflect on why it was created.
The Indiana General Assembly established the Commission in 1989 in part to reimburse all counties for half of their legal expenses incurred in defending individuals charged in capital cases. It also charged the Commission to develop indigent defense standards in such cases.
Later, the Commission learned that some of Indiana’s most populous counties were paying as low as $30 per billable hour or a flat-rate average of $300 per felony case and $52.50 per misdemeanor case. These amounts were frequently found to be insufficient to even cover the attorney’s office overhead.
The Commission noted that “not even the most able and industrious lawyers can provide quality representation when their workloads are unmanageable.”
The General Assembly later charged the Commission, among other things, to set standards under which counties would be reimbursed up to 40% of their indigent criminal defense costs in non-capital cases.
The Commission adopted standards based upon those approved by the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards and Goals, which standards were later endorsed by the National Legal Aid and Defender Association. The goal was to reduce caseloads by around 20% per attorney in Indiana.
In exchange for making these two fundamental commitments of pay parity and caseload maximums, counties become eligible for up to 40% of their non-capital criminal indigent defense expenses. The enabling legislation made death penalty case expenses a priority; it also provided that when the appropriated funds are not enough to pay 40% of all other claims, the reimbursement for non-capital cases must be pro-rated.
As the number of participating counties increased but funding did not increase accordingly, the Commission had to pro-rate some reimbursements over a period of eight years.
When the economy improved, the Legislature committed over twenty million dollars each year to this program, which means that participating counties have received the full 40% state reimbursement since fiscal year 2009-2010.
In 2013, the Legislature made additional appropriations, which enabled the Commission to reimburse counties for indigent defense costs in Child in Need of Services (CHINS) and Termination of Parental Rights (TPR) cases, in addition to the adult criminal, appellate, and juvenile delinquency cases previously reimbursed.
Since reimbursable expenses have increased, more counties have joined the program and have committed to providing quality representation to their indigent populations.
Observers note that the commitments required by the Commission enhance the quality of representation and make the judicial process more efficient and ultimately more cost-effective.
Since 1989, the Commission has sent nearly $182 million back to counties. Most recently, the Commission endorsed legislation that will further improve the program. The legislation will pay or reimburse 100% of the salaries counties pay to full-time chief public defenders.
Although currently there are about nine full-time chief public defenders in the participating counties, this legislation will move Indiana counties to more accountable systems, with chief public defenders who will monitor and supervise the work of the county’s public defense bar.
Now is the time to ask if your county should make these simple yet effective commitments to the local bar, the indigent community, and the administration of justice.
As an attractive incentive, your county might even be able to save tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars each year.
If your county already participates in the Commission’s reimbursement program, perhaps it is time to literally raise the bar and establish an office or a chief public defender that can help ensure the quality of representation in your county.
In the end, this move would enhance the delivery of services to the clients and the administration of justice.
The Commission is ready to help any county with a cost-benefit analysis, comprehensive plans for establishing a county-wide system, or whatever other assistance may be needed to explore ways to improve legal representation of indigent individuals.
For additional information on this article or the Public Defender Commission, please contact Derrick Mason at (317) 234-2905 or firstname.lastname@example.org.