Judge pushes for defender office

One of Jackson County’s top officials believes it’s time to establish a public defender’s office in the county.

Jackson Circuit Judge Richard W. Poynter now has to convince a nine-person committee of county officials that such a move will save the county money, help alleviate overcrowding at the jail and offer protection if and when there is a death penalty case here.

“I am doing this because I know this is the right thing for the future of this county,” Poynter said. “This will benefit the county for decades to come.”

Poynter will be a part of the committee recently put together by county commissioners to review the benefits and disadvantages of having a public defender’s office. The committee will report to commissioners when its work is completed.

Other committee members are Superior Court II Judge Bruce MacTavish, Superior Court I Judge Bruce Markel, Sheriff Michael Carothers, Prosecutor AmyMarie Travis, Commissioner Tom Joray and county council members Brian Thompson and Charlie Murphy.

Thompson said the group has yet to meet.

“We will first off find out what the benefits are, what the costs are and then proceed,” he said. “What monies would pay for that change to happen and if it would be an increase or decrease to the county.”

Poynter said if a full-time public defender’s office with adequate staffing were put in place, the state would reimburse 40 percent of the costs. He calculated it would cost $620,308 to establish the office — $235,259 from the state and $385,049 from the county.

Currently, the county pays $396,427 for attorney fees without a public defender, so the savings would be $11,378 annually for the county, Poynter said.

Poynter said the system the county uses right now with assigning public defenders to represent defendants, especially in felony cases, isn’t moving the cases quickly enough through the justice system.

Defendants in about 85 percent of the cases he sees rely on a court-appointed attorney, and last year, there were almost 700 case filings in his court.

On Oct. 1, Poynter put a contract system in place. That system uses four public defenders instead of the 13 or 14 that had been called upon in the past to defend people who couldn’t afford a lawyer.

The contract system involves two attorneys, who are each being paid $60,000 to handle the more serious crimes (Level 1-4) and two others who are paid $55,000 each to handle the Level 5-6 cases.

Poynter said those attorneys also are busy representing not only defendants in Jackson County but those in nearby counties.

“They’re constantly tied up in other courts,” Poynter said, referring to some who travel to Harrison and Jennings counties.

“With the public defender’s office, they would belong to you five days a week, Monday through Friday, and all they do is move cases out of the jail,” Poynter said.

He said the quicker an inmate can receive representation and eventually move out of the overcrowded jail in Brownstown, the less money is needed to house them.

Poynter said an inmate in his court spent 20 to 30 days more in jail than needed because the case took too long to resolve.

Overcrowding at the jail, which has 172 beds, has a potential to rise July 1 because of a change in state law that requires offenders convicted of Class D felonies and sentenced to one year or less to be jailed in county jails instead of with the Indiana Department of Correction.

“Anyone who doesn’t have a real year left to serve in jail will be ineligible for prison. They will have to be housed locally,” he said.

This past year, an average of 213 inmates a day were held at the jail.

Poynter said another reason he’s pushing for the office is because if a public defender qualified to handle death penalty cases takes the position, it will prepare the county for a worst-case scenario.

If the death penalty is ever sought, that public defender would take the case, preventing extra expenses to the county to hire special representation for the defendant, he said.

“You’re talking a huge, huge expense to the county,” he said. “If we have a full-time public defender, those things can be handled in that office.”

He referred to when Jackson County officer Rick Meyer was shot last year. If Meyer had been killed, that would have been a potential death penalty case, he said.

“We have an interstate. We have a drug problem. It’s only a matter of time before the death penalty (becomes an issue),” he said.

As for office space, Poynter said there are a few options, including using the old assessor’s officer in Seymour, which is used for one probation officer, or renting space at one of the empty buildings in Brownstown.

Murphy said once the proposal is reviewed by the nine members, it can be taken before the county commissioners. From there, a public defender’s board would have to be approved and established.

That board, made up of three appointed individuals by the commissioners and county judges, would work on hiring the public defender.

Funding for a public defender’s office would have to be approved by the county council.