The Bartholomew County Public Defender Board is recommending the county take several steps to improve the legal representation provided to indigent defendants.
The recommendations come as the number of public defense cases in the county continues to increase. Bartholomew County saw about 200 more cases last year that required public defenders than it did in 2015.
“If you have more cases as a public defender than you can handle, then what do you do?” says board member Bud Herron. “You don’t have time to talk to your client, you show up in court on a relative minor thing and you ask for a continuance. And, the person involved goes back to jail waiting for another hearing.”
To help deal with the increase in cases, the county public defender board recommends hiring two more part-time public defenders, as well as a chief public defender. That person would appoint public defenders to cases, which is something judges do under the current system.
Herron says that can create ethical issues.
“No matter how honest the judge was, just that question in your mind ‘Is this attorney trying to please the judge in order to get another appointment? Maybe to an appellate case or something that would even pay more? Or is this attorney really defending me?’”
The board also recommends the county create a fund to reimburse public defenders for some of the office expenses incurred when working on public defense cases, which can quickly add up.
Herron says the county is trying to be proactive after attorneys filed class-action lawsuits against Johnson and Allen counties alleging their public defender systems are overburdened and inadequate.
The county will consider the recommendations when it drafts its 2018 budget.