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Hancock Co. Public Defender Funding Shortfall Part Of Bigger Issue

The Hancock County council will decide whether to approve the funding request Nov. 8.

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An Indiana county is nearly out of money to pay its public defenders through the rest of the year. There’s only about $500 left in Hancock County’s public defense budget for 2017.

And it’s an issue that isn’t confined to one county. The state doesn’t guarantee a set amount of funding for counties to provide indigent defense services every year.

Hancock Co. Needs $125,000 To Pay Public Defenders Through 2017

John Apple is sitting at his desk looking through spreadsheets that detail the county’s expenditures for felony and misdemeanor public defense cases this year. He’s been in this situation before.

“We’re going to need, in my estimates, another $125,000,” Apple says.

For the past three years, Hancock County’s Public Defense board has had to go to the county and request additional funding to pay for attorneys who represent indigent clients.

Apple says a variety of factors are contributing to the problem, including a murder case that cost the county more than $50,000 this year. And there’s been an overall increase in the number of cases making their way through the court system.

“I think we have a systematic problem that’s for funding across the board.”

“I think we have a systemic problem that’s for funding across the board,” Apple says. “All the way from law enforcement, to the courts, to the prosecutor to the probation department and public defense.”

Counties across Indiana have little help from the state when it comes to funding their public defense systems. According to the non-profit Sixth Amendment Center, more than three-quarters of the funding comes from local governments.

Counties can opt into the state’s Public Defender Commission and receive partial reimbursement for representation costs associated with felony and death penalty cases, but the amount they receive varies year-to-year.

“It would be great if we could get reimbursed on everything,” Apple says.

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Task Force Looking Into Indiana’s Public Defense Problems

It’s one of several issues a new statewide task force on public defense will look into. The group is made up of attorneys, legislators, judges and public safety officials. Their job is to draft recommendations for improving Indiana’s system.

“The right of due process is one of the most important rights we have,” says Senator Rodric Bray (R-Martinsville), who is a member of the task force. “So we need to get it right.”

Funding will no doubt be part of the conversation.

A Sixth Amendment Center study from last year found public defenders in many Indiana counties are taking on caseloads that are much higher than state standards. In order to come into compliance, many counties need to hire more public defenders. But they’re already struggling to pay for what they have.

“This is one of those sort of societal unfunded mandates,” says David Bottorff, executive director of the Association of Indiana Counties and task force member. “The county can’t really do a good job of budgeting how much money they’re going to need for public defenders because you just don’t know what type of crisis will happen in your counties.”

That’s the situation Hancock County finds itself in year after year. Apple says while caseloads climb, the public defense budget remains the same. He’s hopeful that will change, but it’s unclear where the county will find the necessary funding.

He says the shortfall could be addressed, in part, by the state contributing a set amount of money toward public defense each year.

“It would certainly help, there’s no question about it,” he says. “And, it isn’t like that’s unprecedented. The judges and so forth their salaries are paid for, or at least mostly paid for, through the state. So that’s an option.”

But it’s an option Apple admits is a longshot.

The Hancock County council will vote on whether to allocate an additional $125,000 to the public defense budget at its November 8th meeting. It’s approved similar requests the past three years.

Read more about Indiana’s public defense system in our special report Justice For All?

Want to contact your legislators about an issue that matters to you? Find out how to contact your senators and member of Congress here.

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