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Attorneys Ask Ind. Supreme Court To Fix Public Defender System

Public defender presser

Several attorneys are calling on the Indiana Supreme Court to overhaul the state’s public defender system.

They filed a petition Thursday, asking the Supreme Court to spell out rules, procedures and standards for defending those who rely on the state’s public defender system. While there are specific standards for public defense in death penalty cases, the attorneys argue similar rules are needed for misdemeanor, juvenile and lower level felony cases.

The petition asks the court to hear testimony about the current state of Indiana's public defender system and adopt changes. It requests the creation of a statewide public defender system. There's currently no oversight for 37 Indiana counties that choose not to participate in Indiana's non-capital reimbursement program for public defense cases.

Michael Sutherlin is one of two attorneys who signed the petition. He wants to see a fully-funded, statewide public defender system established.

"What we hope will happen is the court will take this seriously and take steps to examine it in a comprehensive way," he says.

Sutherlin and attorney Jon Little filed a class-action lawsuit last year claiming Johnson County failed to provide adequate representation for public defense cases. A similar lawsuit filed in Allen County claims public defenders take on too many cases at once, resulting in ineffective council.

The petition comes after a Boston-based public defense advocacy group called the Sixth Amendment Center released a report earlier this year claiming Indiana isn’t meeting its constitutional obligation to provide effective representation in public defense cases.

The report found, in some cases, defendants are encouraged to negotiate directly with prosecutors before being appointed an attorney. It also pointed to conflicts of interest with the way the system is structured. In some counties, private attorneys receive a flat fee for handling an unlimited number of public defense cases each year. Oftentimes, those attorneys have a contract with a specific judge.

“The attorney takes into account what he needs to do to please the judge in order to secure the next contract or appointment instead of advocating solely in the stated interests of the indigent accused,” the report states.

The Sixth Amendment Center says many of Indiana's public defenders are also overworked.  For example, the report highlights Elkhart  where the public defender had as many as five times the maximum cases allowed for an attorney in 2014.

Executive Director of the Sixth Amendment Center David Carroll says Indiana spends less per capita on public defense than other, smaller states such as Louisiana – which is drawing national attention for problems with its system.

"The best guesses are you’re spending less than $60 million a year," Carroll says. "So you’re going to have to spend a significant amount of money to get to Louisiana’s level of the crisis."

According to the petition for rule making, public defenders represent about 90 percent of the people charged with felonies in Indiana.

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