Public defender on county agenda

A committee of county officials has decided the time to move forward with a proposal to establish a public defender’s office in Jackson County has arrived.

Jackson Circuit Judge Richard Poynter has been the pushing for the full-time office, contending it would save the county money, offer better representation for those who can’t afford an attorney and help alleviate jail overcrowding.

On Thursday, a committee composed of county officials discussed the issue and the result was a decision to put together an ordinance establishing the office. That ordinance will be reviewed by the three Jackson County Commissioners, who will decide the next step for the office.

The committee consisting of county councilmen Brian Thompson and Charlie Murphy; Sheriff Michael Carothers; Superior Court II Judge Bruce MacTavish, J.L. Brewer, director of the Jackson-Jennings Community Corrections program; county Commissioner Tom Joray; county Prosecutor AmyMarie Travis and Attorney Susan Bevers, have been meeting for several months to discuss a variety of issues related to criminal justice including the public defender’s office and a work release center.

Several other people attended the meeting, and a former judge and two attorneys spoke in favor of establishing the office.

Retired Jackson Circuit Judge Bill Vance said the public defender’s office is something he looked into establishing when he was on the bench, but at that time, the state reimbursement wasn’t enough to make it feasible.

Today, it’s 40 percent.

“I told the county council in the summer of 2012 that it was something that really needed to be done in this county,” Vance said. “I’m glad to see they’re doing it without dissent.”

Poynter said the commissioners will have to approve an ordinance establishing a public defender’s board. That board would be composed of three appointees — one chosen by Poynter, a second by MacTavish and a third by commissioners. The board would then choose the staffing of the office.

Modeled after Lawrence County’s system, the proposed office would result in adequate legal representation, Poynter said.

Currently, the county uses contracted attorneys who work out of their own private offices and have other cases to handle.

Poynter said that system isn’t moving felony cases through the justice system quickly enough. Eighty-five percent of his the cases that come through circuit are felonies that require public defenders.

The slow process can take a toll on the already-overcrowded jail, some officials have said. There are 172 beds at the Brownstown facility, and the number of often exceeds that amount, according to the sheriff. In April, the average daily inmate count was 218, up from 206 in March and 192 in February.

There’s a potential for an even larger increase in inmates starting July 1 because of a change in state law. That change requires offenders convicted of Class D felonies and sentenced to one year or less to be housed in county jails instead of serving that time in a state prison.

“I think the ultimate goal of the office would result in getting people through the justice system quicker and with less medical claims and food for inmates and lessening those burdens,” Brewer said.

As for costs, how the office is set up will be decided by the three-person board, and the Jackson County Council would have to approve funding.

Derrick Mason, staff counsel at the state’s public defender commission, who was in attendance, said the county could save about $25,000 or spend up to $10,000, depending on how the office is staffed. The current budget for public defender is $405,427.

Mason also said qualifying counties through the state may receive up to 40 percent of public defense costs in felony and juvenile cases and 50 percent in capital cases.

Currently, 54 of Indiana’s 92 counties have public defender offices.

For location of the office, an idea for the proposed office would be at Superior Court I in Seymour, so there would be no added building cost, Poynter said.

Poynter said it would be ideal to have a public defender who is death penalty-qualified just in case that situation would arise.

Judge MacTavish will continue to use the part-time contracted attorneys in his court; Judge Markel will not be impacted by the new system, Poynter said.