A state commission wants to see major reforms of Indiana’s public defense system.
Their recommendations come after multiple reports pointed to systematic problems.
The first study came in 2016, when the Sixth Amendment Center studied several counties to determine whether Indiana is meeting its constitutional obligation to provide legal representation to those who can't afford an attorney. The report states many counties avoid state oversight by not participating in a voluntary reimbursement program. Counties who opt into the program and follow certain standards can get reimbursed for some of their public defense expenses. About two-thirds of Indiana's counties are participating.
A state task force on public defense also spent a year evaluating Indiana’s system, and discovered several inadequacies. Among them: there’s no uniform system for assessing the quality of representation, there isn’t equal access to counsel, and attorneys have excessive caseloads.
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Based on that report, the Indiana Public Defender Commission plans to ask legislators for big changes next year.
Chairman Mark Rutherford says one recommendation is to start reimbursing counties who comply with state public defense standards for misdemeanor cases. Reimbursement currently only happens for felonies.
The public defense task force found that counsel was only appointed in 36 percent of misdemeanors, and oftentimes there is pressure to quickly resolve the cases. But, they can have major consequences.
"The longterm effects of a misdemeanor conviction can be hurtful," Rutherford says. "And, a lot of people don’t realize that that it can get in the way of people getting jobs, etc."
Another recommendation calls for reforming county public defender boards to safeguard the independence of the public defense system.
Rutherford says the commission also wants to create a statewide office that will help coordinate representation during the appeals process for those who can’t afford an attorney.
"It shouldn’t be by geography whether or not you get an experienced attorney who has experience on such a matter, it really should be something where everyone has a good opportunity to have a good appellate attorney when there are good appellate issues," he says.
The final recommendation would allow counties additional flexibility to work with each other in their attempts to deliver public defense services. Rutherford says that's something that already happens with other services, like police and fire.
"It may be a way for counties when it comes to public defender work, especially smaller counties and midsize counties, to group together and do some of this and get the economy of scale," he says.
It's unclear how much the reforms could cost.