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Indigent defense plans cause concern

By Ed Brock

Clayton County will be forming Public Defenders Offices by next year, but Clayton County's plans to contract out indigent defense in its State Court has some lawyers concerned.

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.

Some single county judicial circuits, like Clayton County, were to be allowed to opt out of the program, but in early November the Public Defenders Standards Council rejected the county's request for several reasons. Some of those reasons listed in a memorandum from the council are that the county's previous system of hiring panel attorneys to represent defendants who cannot afford their own attorney violated the purpose of the act, didn't provide separation of the indigent defense attorneys from judicial control and didn't ensure quality representation.

The new Public Defender's Office will be required by the statute to cover all felony cases, probation revocations and delinquency cases in Juvenile Court, said Jim Martin, chief legal officer for the Public Defender Standards Council.

Clayton County's Public Defender's Office will get four attorneys, said the county's attorney Don Comer, and that just won't be enough.

"We know that there's going to be a tremendous amount of work that will have to be handled by the panel attorneys even if we don't have conflict cases, and we know we're going to have conflict cases," Comer said.

A conflict case is one in which two defendants in the same case have different positions and need separate lawyers. Also, Comer said the Public Defenders Office would not handle deprivation cases in Juvenile Court.

So, in order to create a kind of hybrid system, on Nov. 8 the county sent letters to several law firms seeking proposals for their qualifications to enter contracts with the county to provide indigent defense in misdemeanor cases.

The deadline for submitting proposals was Nov. 19, and six law firms submitted proposals by that time.

Those firms are Lister & Holt, Kaine & Jones, G. Glaves-Innis & Associates, Reed, Scott & Associates, Glaze, Harris, Arnold & Mack, PC and The Fuller Law Group LLC and King, Grant & Associates, all of Jonesboro. A short list of three to five candidates will be picked then asked to develop and submit a Statement of Final Proposal.

The short-listed firms will then be interviewed by a selection committee.

The Public Defender Standards Council has been watching the process, Martin said.

"We're not ruling out any reasonable solution to the problem," Martin said. "We're very encouraged by what's happening there right now."

D. Lee Smith, who has an office in Jonesboro, is one of a small group of attorneys that doesn't like the way the proposals are being handled. Smith wrote a letter to another member of the standards council, Atlanta attorney Emmet Bondurant, to express his concerns.

"While the rest of the state is planning to move forward, Clayton County intends to jam its indigent defense vehicle into reverse and then stomp down on the accelerator," Smith said. "The outgoing county commissioners are planning, before they leave, to dish out a last bit of patronage by awarding a contract to handle all the indigent defense work in the Clayton (County) State Court."

Smith said the effort to contract indigent defense in the state court violates the intent of the act which is to do away with the abuses of such a system. He also takes issue with the fact that, according to the county's request for proposals, "details of the proposal documents will remain confidential until final award." He also wants to know who will be on the selection committee.

Comer said the new system will comply with the law because the main concern of the Indigent Defense Act and the Standards Council is with making sure the public defender attorney's contracts are not with the judiciary. If an attorney relies on the judge for a contract, Comer said, they could feel less free in their ability to do their jobs. The contracts for the new panel of attorneys will be with the county, Comer said.

Also, Comer said he hasn't finalized who will be on the selection committee but will release their names this week. He said the proposal documents were being kept confidential because they could contain business related information that the participating firms, for one reason or another, wouldn't want revealed.

"We don't want to chill anybody's proposal," Comer said. "If the attorney doesn't mind (the release of the proposal documents) we won't mind."

Smith has filed a Freedom of Information Act request with Comer's office requesting any and all documents Comer had received from law firms that sent proposals, all information and correspondence to the county commission regarding who will be on the selection committee and any documents or correspondence from any judge regarding the county's solicitation of proposals.

"Those proposals are subject to the open records act and I intend to pursue them one way or another," Smith said.

Smith said he and the other attorneys in his group are puzzled by the Standards Council inaction regarding the county's plan.

"If the council is not going to act to stop this, we're going to have to do something," Smith said.