Aiding justice in Jackson County

Some parts of the newly established county public defender’s office have now been put in place.

The work to put the most important piece in place, however, has just begun.

“We have right now at least, what I feel, are 12 really strong applicants,” Mike Jordan said in reference to the county public defender board’s search for a chief public defender.

Jordan, who is president of the three-member board, said some of those candidates are local attorneys while others are from elsewhere in the state.

“We are at the point now, where we are going to start setting up interviews,” he said. “We want to do our interviews in October, and we hope to have a selection in November.”

The door to apply for the job, which will pay the same as the prosecutor and circuit court judge ($136,686 this year) is still open and potential candidates may contact county attorney Susan Bevers for information, Jordan said.

The board, which also includes Bruce Wynn and Joe Thoele, plans to start interviewing candidates Oct. 9, Jordan said.

Bevers and Jeff Hubbard, the county’s human resources director, also will be involved in the interviewing process.

The eventual goal is to get whoever is picked to run the office, which will include four other attorneys, in place in December so they can start hiring those attorneys, an investigator and clerks, Jordan said.

The office is slated to open Jan. 1.

Jordan said whoever is picked for the job will be expected to live in the county.

The process of finding a location for that office is nearly complete as well, county commissioner Jerry Hounshel said Friday.

The county has made an offer of $136,250 for property at 213 E. Cross St. That property is owned by Dr. Joel McGill and his wife, Sarah McGill, and served as his office until his recent retirement.

The building is just east of the courthouse, which houses Jackson Circuit Court, and just south of Jackson Superior Court II.

“It couldn’t be in a more perfect place,” Hounshel said.

Both courts will make use of the public defender’s office.

McGill has accepted the county’s offer, which is the average of two appraisals, Hounshel said.

The office also is broken up into small room and a waiting room that would be ideal for the public defender’s office, he said.

The Indiana Public Defender Commission’s recent approval of the program means the county is now eligible to receive 40 percent reimbursement for the costs of operating the program of providing felony and juvenile indigent defense, Hounshel said.

That means the cost of the McGill building along with remodeling costs and the cost of new desks and office equipment would be eligible for the 40 percent reimbursement.

The county also can start receiving 40 percent reimbursement for the costs of public defense during the last quarter of this year, county councilman Brian Thompson said.

This year’s budget for the four attorneys providing public defender service is $411,223. That money goes to pay attorneys working under contract for public defense services now.

Thompson said during recent, on-going budget talks, the council has shifted funds around, and with the 40 percent reimbursement it might cost the county about $20,000 more for pauper attorney services than it is this year in 2016.

More accurate information will be available after the council conducts another budget meeting at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the courthouse in annex in Brownstown, he said.

To establish a new office and do it for that much is not such as bad thing since the public defender office will correct some of the issues that drove Jackson Circuit Judge Rick Poynter to purpose the idea of a public defender office a year or so ago, Thompson said.

Those issues included providing adequate legal coverage for those unable to hire an attorney and better pay for those attorneys and moving cases through the justice system quicker, eliminating overcrowding at the jail. Poynter also has said it is a conflict of interest for him to be appointing public defenders who must turn around and argue their cases in his courtroom.

As of June 18, 55 counties were participating in the reimbursement program. All 92 counties receive 50 percent reimbursement for the cost of defending a person accused of a capital case, such as murder, who cannot afford an attorney.