Choice near on chief public defender

Jackson County’s first chief public defender could begin the work of putting their staff and office together as early as next week.

“Our goal was to have somebody in place by the end of October, and we plan to do that,” Mike Jordan said of the process of finding an attorney to head the county’s newly created public defender’s office.

Jordan, chairman of the three-member public defender board, said that board, which includes Joe Thoele and Bruce Wynn, narrowed the list of potential candidates for that job to two this past Friday.

One will be offered the job, and the board hopes the one who isn’t picked will wind up joining the office as one of three other public defenders.

“Both were good candidates,” Jordan said.

The new chief public defender will earn $136,686 in 2016 and will oversee the operations of the office, which replaces a system in which the county paid area attorneys a set fee to defend people who have been arrested and can’t afford to hire a lawyer.

Jackson Circuit Judge Richard W. Poynter pushed for establishing the office as a way of providing people unable to afford an attorney with better representation and alleviating overcrowding at the jail by moving inmates through the system more quickly.

Poynter also has said it’s a conflict of interest for him to appoint an attorney to defend someone and then have that attorney argue his case in front of him.

County attorney Susan Bevers recently told county council members that the process of purchasing the 1,563-square-foot office of a retired doctor near the courthouse annex in Brownstown is just about complete. That office will serve as the home of the public defender’s office and has space for the four public defenders, two staff members and a part-time investigator.

“We hope to close on the sale this week,” Bevers said Monday in reference to the purchase of the property at 213 E. Cross St.

That quarter-acre property is owned by Dr. Joel McGill and his wife, Sarah.

The county will pay $136,250, which is the average of two appraisals for the property, Bevers said.

Jordan said if the board gives final approval to the chief public defender, that person would be introduced to county commissioners and would then tour the office to help determine equipment for budgeting purposes.

Because the state has approved a public defender program for Jackson County, 40 percent of the costs of purchasing and renovating the office will be reimbursed by the state. Forty percent of the costs incurred providing legal representation even before the office is open also will be reimbursed, Bevers said.