Friday, December 14, 2012

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part CX): "Public defender comes calling"

That is part of the headline for the lead story in the Newton County Times' Dec 5 issue:  "Quorum Court:  Public defender comes calling."  The story's lede doesn't summarize the story well, but the caption under the photo does:
Tim Bunch, chief public defender for the 14th Judicial District that includes Baxter, Boone, Marion and Newton counties, visited the Newton County Quorum Court Monday night, Dec. 3, and asked the court to establish a public defender's account and refund the accrued surplus into that account.
The accompanying story explains that the state pays the fees of court-appointed attorneys who represent indigent defendants facing criminal charges.  The state raises funds for this purpose through bail bond fees, then forwards that "money to individual counties to budget for public defender services."  Newton County has received just more than $2,000/a year in such payments for each of the last seven fiscal years, from 2005-2006 to 2011-2012.  (Specifically,the county has received between $2,181.44 and $2,376.14 each year).  These funds are "earmarked for the public defender and appropriated ... into the county general operating budget."  

Remarkably, the story reports, "court cases in Newton County requiring the services of public defenders over the past seven years have not exceeded the approximately $16,000 the county received over that time and there should be a surplus of about $8500, according to Bunch."  Bunch therefore asked the Newton County Quorum Court to establish a public defender's account and refund the surplus into that account.  Bunch said that Newton County is the only county in the four-county district that does not have an account set up expressly for public defenders.  
[Bunch] explained the funding process and said the public defender's office needs to have access to that money to purchase new equipment and perhaps hire a part-time secretary.  
The story continues:  
It appears that any money for the public defender that remained in Newton County's general fund at the end of each year was reappropriated for other purposes.    
Money would have to be transferred out of other accounts to refund the surplus a public defender's account would have accrued.   
That would be hard to accomplish with money spread thin while officials are trying to come up with a balanced budget for 2013. 
Bunch said he came into this job about a year ago and discovered there was no instrument in place in Newton County to gain access to the surplus funds.  
He said he wanted the quorum court to be aware of the situation and take the steps to remedy the problem.   
Some JPs said they were not on the court seven years ago and were not made aware of the need to establish a fund for the public defender. 
The JPs legal counsel, deputy prosecutor Brad Brown, actually sided with Bunch agreeing that the money given to the county for public defenders belong entirely to the public defenders and if called upon, state officials would order the county to pay the money back in full.  

I guess these events reflects several issues about local governments in rural locales, especially those without professional leadership and without much knowledge passed down over the years.  It seems self evident that local officials  would not put funds earmarked for indigent defense into the county general fund--that these are special fund monies--but apparently not.  I have written about funding models for public defender services here, and the impact of those funding schemes on rural counties.  

What is most striking to me, however, about this news is its link to the fact that Newton County has just spent a lot of money on a new jail that it has no money to operate.  Read more here.  The county sheriff and county judge have said that the new jail is necessary because the volume of crime is so heavy in the county, and currently many outstanding warrants are not being served because the cost of housing the prisoners elsewhere is too high.  But if the volume of crime in the county is so high, how can it be that the county has spent less than $2K/year on indigent defense.  Bear in mind that this is a persistent poverty county with a poverty rate higher than 20% since as long as data has been kept.  Also bear in mind three high-profile murders that have occurred in the county during this time, each involving intimate partner murder.  Read more here, here and here.  While two of these three cases have ended with plea bargains, getting any murder case to even the plea bargain stage costs at least $2,000 in attorney fees, and none of those defendants seemed to have many assets.

Lawyers in rural Arkansas may work cheap, but they don't work that cheap.  This leads me to wonder if the county is scrimping on providing indigent defense to those for whom it is a constitutional right? 

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