NewsPublic Affairs / January 23, 2019

Public Defender Commission Wants $15 Million More Per Year To Maintain, Improve System

The commission wants $4.7 million more per year to reimburse counties for expenditures associated with public defense misdemeanor cases. - Steve Burns/WFIU-WTIU News

The commission wants $4.7 million more per year to reimburse counties for expenditures associated with public defense misdemeanor cases.

Steve Burns/WFIU-WTIU News

Indiana's Public Defender Commission wants more than $15 million in additional funding per year to improve the state's system.

Leaders from the commission gave their two-year budget presentation to the House Ways & Means Committee Wednesday morning.

The group sets standards for public defender training, caseloads and salaries. It reimburses counties that follow those rules for up to 40 percent of the costs of indigent felony cases.

The commission says the number of counties participating over the years has increased to 62, meaning it needs additional funding to continue providing that level of reimbursement. It's asking for a base budget increase of $4.47 million per year so it can continue giving counties the full 40 percent.

Mark Rutherford is chair of the commission. He says the additional funding is needed because of a sharp increase in the number of children going through Indiana's welfare system. Their cases are referred to as Child In Need Of Services, or CHINS, cases.

"There's a record number of CHINS cases that is being filed and continuing being filed in the state of Indiana and they require a public defender," Rutherford says.

The commission also wants to expand the types of cases it reimburses counties for to include all cases, rather than just felonies.

"We pay nothing back to the counties for the number one, most common case type in Indiana," says Senior Staff Attorney Derrick Mason. "Approximately 65 percent of new criminal filings according to Supreme Court statistics in 2017 were misdemeanors."

The commission wants $5.7 million more per year for misdemeanor reimbursements.

Leaders are also requesting an additional $4.9 million per year to establish a centralized appeals system.

"Appeals are the number one, most expensive case type for a county to handle," Mason says. "And, there are many counties in the state that really struggle with finding qualified appellate attorneys because it is a specialty area."

A centralized office in Indianapolis would provide some appellate services to the counties, as well as contract with lawyers in the state's different regions.

The Public Defender Commission's budget was $25.75 million per year for 2017-2019.

The budget requests mirror the recommendations of a task force on public defense, which looked into multiple reports of systematic problems with how Indiana provides indigent defense.

The task force spent a year evaluating the state's system and found several problems, including excessive caseloads and inequal access to counsel.

The House committee will likely amend the budget request before sending it to the entire house for approval.

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