GREENFIELD — Hancock County has traditionally relied on a roster of on-call attorneys to represent its indigent criminal defendants, with judges needing to appoint a lawyer to take each individual case. Sometimes, especially in the case of high-level felonies, it can be hard to find someone who’s available.
Starting next year, judges won’t have to make those calls, and defendants will be able to count on having an attorney who’s prepared to take their case. At its recent budget meeting, the Hancock County Council approved the creation of a public defender’s office that will have permanent employees.
Jonathan Albright, a Greenfield attorney and the head of the county’s public defender board, said the new office will save the county money overall. Albright spoke at the budget meeting this week along with Jennifer Shircliff, a staff attorney with the Indiana Public Defender Commission.
Albright, who runs the public defender program along with his private law practice, said he and the county’s judges agreed creating the new office was the best way forward. He added that in recent years, he’s had more trouble finding attorneys who will take on the public defender work, which has a relatively low rate of pay.
“I’ve lost three of my felony murder-capable attorneys in the last couple months,” Albright said, referring to the expertise and experience required in such cases. “I’m not doing this because I want a job. I want to lose a job. And I want this county to have somebody to step in, take it over and do what needs to be done… so that you have adequate representation.”
Many newer attorneys specialize in civil, not criminal, litigation and can’t adequately provide criminal defense, Albright said.
If the county complies with certain standards for how its public defender’s office should be run, it can receive 40% reimbursement for most of its expenses from the Public Defender Commission, with the exception of expenses related solely to misdemeanor cases. Standards include assigning an appropriate number of cases to each attorney and maintaining the independence of public defenders from other county officials.
The chief public defender’s salary will be set at $159,950 and the deputy chief public defender’s at $119,963. Other salaries would include $70,000 for a staff attorney, $54,182 for an office manager and $33,814 for a legal secretary.
In the budget, $40,000 was also included for hiring additional attorneys on a case-by-case basis if the office has an overflow of cases or has a conflict of interest.
Salaries for the public defender’s office were set based on current pay at the county prosecutor’s office.
“That’s another standard that the commission has; it’s called our parity standard,” Shircliff said. “We require that public defenders be paid in parity with their prosecutorial counterpart. By counterpart, we mean a person in the prosecutor’s office with the same level of experience who handles the same type of cases.”
The county council asked Prosecutor Brent Eaton if he was concerned that the new positions at the public defender’s office, especially the higher-paying chief and deputy chief positions, would lure attorneys away from his office. Eaton said it was a valid concern, though he couldn’t object to employees taking a job that pays better.
“Sure, to some degree, although we do live in a capitalist society,” Eaton said. “We have attorneys that are very good, and there’s opportunities occasionally in the private sector where they could be compensated at a greater rate than what they’re compensated working in the prosecutor’s office, and sometimes they choose to do so… That’s a decision that everybody can make.”
The total budget for the new office comes to less than $600,000. The budget Albright prepared for 2022 under the current system comes to a total of $658,200, with most of it going toward the costs of hiring attorneys for individual cases. Those attorneys are paid at a rate of $100 per hour.
Superior Court 1 judge D.J. Davis said the county’s judges were all in support of the idea of creating the office when it was initially raised. A change was needed, he said, because the number of attorneys available to do public defense work was gradually decreasing.
“It’s become tougher and tougher even since I got on the bench,” said Davis, who was elected in November 2020.
Davis said his concern about the public defender’s office was that it might not have enough personnel. The prosecutor’s office employs eight attorneys, while the defender’s office will start out with three. Of course, some defendants hire their own lawyers — but conversely, public defenders must be appointed in child custody cases, which the prosecutor does not deal with. Since every party needs their own representative, each of those cases alone can require two or three lawyers.
Davis said he hopes the new office will hire qualified and experienced attorneys and re-evaluate its staffing if it turns out more employees are needed.
The county has not yet decided where exactly the office would be located. Albright said he hoped a county-owned space might eventually be made available in the reshuffle of offices that will occur once the new jail opens next year. Until then, the budget includes $24,000 for office rent. That expense would also be reimbursable through the Public Defender Commission.