Changes may be ahead for public defense

Ed Brock

With her husband in Clayton County jail for one year on felony charges, Wendy could have been forced to pay as much as $1,000 for an attorney to defend him.

But Wendy doesn't have $1,000.

"I'm on disability right now and with him in there it's tough," said Wendy, who asked that her last name be not be used.

So the court system appointed a lawyer to take the case, a process that will soon be changed by a new state law. Wendy said the free lawyer saved her family more than money.

"He got my husband the minimum sentence and he was expecting to get more than that," Wendy said.

As part of the "Georgia Indigent Defense Act" approved last year by the state legislature, the Georgia Public Defender Standards Council is set to replace the Georgia Indigent Defense Council and begin operation by 2005. The new council will establish, set standards for and oversee public defender offices in the state's 47 judicial circuits, according to the new law.

But some single county judicial circuits, like Clayton County, will be allowed to opt out of the new program and carry on with their current system. The Clayton County Commission is waiting until the General Assembly finishes discussing the budget for the public defender program before deciding whether to change to the new system.

"I don't see anything yet that would benefit us," said Crandle Bray, chairman of the Clayton County Commission.

If the county chooses to participate in the new program, a five-member Public Defender Selection Panel would then appoint the public defender for the county, panel member and Clayton County District Attorney Bob Keller said.

The public defender will be responsible for appointing assistant public defenders and providing legal defense for anyone accused of a crime who cannot afford their own attorney.

The panel and the laws creating it are an attempt to provide uniformity to indigent defense around the state, Keller said adding that "indigent defense is a state obligation and it shouldn't be the responsibility of the individual judicial circuits."

It would be good, Keller said, if the state would fully fund the program. But he doesn't think Clayton County's slice of the roughly $44 million overall budget for the program is enough.

The county funds two thirds of the district attorney's department, and for a public defender's office to be of any real value, Jonesboro criminal defense attorney Steve Frey said, it should be at least somewhat on par with Keller's office.

"The district attorney's office is well staffed and has a great deal of resources available to it," Frey said. "You would have to have a public defender's office with access to resources, too."

While the new system might benefit the state as a whole, Frey said there is already a good system in place in Clayton County.

The current system uses a tripartite committee with representatives from the county commission, judges and bar association to maintain a list of public defenders, including Frey, to appoint to indigent cases.

In 2003 the committee appointed attorneys for 4,149 defendants in 6,008 cases, said Ralph Lurker who represents the judges on the committee. They reimbursed the appointed attorneys $2.3 million for their work but recovered $172,354 of that through restitution from the defendants.

State grants cover around 13 percent of the committee's costs, Lurker said, and the county funds the rest of it. Attorneys are paid $45 an hour for out of court work and $60 an hour for in court work on regular cases. In death penalty cases "second chair" attorneys who assist in the defense are paid $60 an hour for in and out of court work while lead attorneys are paid $85 an hour.

The attorneys are paid a minimum of $300 per day for state and superior court cases and $150 for magistrate or municipal cases, Lurker said.

The county has until September to opt out of the public defender program, Bray said.