Public Defenders Office Had Tumultuous Two Years with County Officials
LAWRENCE COUNTY - (January 14, 2022) - The last two years have been a tumultuous two years for the public defender's office and the Lawrence County Council.
In fact, it has not been an easy two years for the Lawrence County Justice System in general as mandates were issued to the Lawrence County Council and Lawrence County Commissioners rejected a request for a fourth courtroom.
Today article will focus on the public defender's office following a mistrial was declared in a rape trial.
Lawrence County Zephyr will outline some of the issues with the public defender's office and how this has affected not only those accused of crimes but has impacted the taxpayers and the community safety in general due to the long-standing issues.
The request by Chief Public Defender Bruce Andis to hire another public defender in April 2020 was ignored by the Lawrence County Council. Andis has cited that the office was short-staffed at the time and another public defender will be leaving in June 2020.
The vacancy in June 2020 caused a shortage of attorneys to handle Level 1 to Level 4 criminal cases. At the time the Public Defenders was out of compliance for state funding who will be out of compliance from the State Public Defender Commission.
" They will overlook this one time, but they will not let this go very much longer. If this continues the state funding for the program could be affected," said Andis during the April 2020 meeting of the Lawrence County Council.
" The salary for the position may be affecting the attorney's willingness to apply for the position which is at $48,000 a year," Andis added. At the time Greene County was paying $70,000 a year, and they have not had any applicants since January,"
Lawrence County president David Flinn scheduled a meeting to address those concerns with Andis back following the April 2020 meeting. Flinn was liaison between the Public Defender's office.
At the end of June in 2020 the Public Defender's office decline appointments to cases in all Lawrence County courts that were filed from June 19, 2020, through the remainder of the quarter.
" I make this decision in order to protect the county's reimbursement from the Indiana Public Defender Commission. Happily, though, this declination will continue only through Wednesday July 1, 2020," Andis declared in a letter written to all Lawrence County Judges at the time.
Andis cited that his office was operating short one attorney since January 1, 2020. My request to the Lawrence County Council to split that open full-time position into two part-time positions was tabled for three successive months" said Andis in his letter to the judges.
On June 8, 2020, two other attorneys terminated their employment with the agency and a third terminated their employment on June 19, 2020. One attorney was hired by a neighboring county's public defender office at a salary appointment 62 percent greater than she was being paid by Lawrence County.
" I believe the county's salary ordinance was a contributing factor for other attorneys who left- an attorney who by the way was forced to seek public assistance to help support her family while employed by Lawrence County," Andis added.
During this period of the first quarter of 2020 the Lawrence County Public Defender Office exceeded caseload compliance.
In the recent Lawrence County Justice Study released to the public Lawrence County Superior Court I Judge John Plummer III left a scathing comment in regard to the Lawrence County Council and Public Defenders office their inability to work together.
Lawrence County Superior Court I Judge John Plummer III
" There is an unfortunate disconnect (fairly poor working relationship) between the local courts and the county council due to a long-standing separation of powers issue that the county council struggles understanding, " said Judge Plummer.
" Despite significant efforts over the years, the county council seems reluctant to fully address the low pay of court staff despite the results of a fairly recent salary study supporting raises when compared to other counties,"
It should be noted that the Lawrence County Council did give both the public defender's office and the court staff significant raises in 2022. The budget for Lawrence County increase to almost $28 Million with the Lawrence County Council giving significant raises to all elected officials, public defender's office and the Lawrence County court staff.
The raises come after retired Judge William Sleva issued a mandate for the raises and a potential for a fourth court room to handle the back log of criminal cases.
Budget for Public Defenders Office
2018 Budget - $684,628.32
2019 Budget - $685,462.96
2020 Budget - $696,102.39
2021 Budget - $747,401.00
2022 Budget - $847,000.000 Note the public defender requested the budget at one million to include contract attorney's
Lawrence County has been a member of the Indiana Public Defenders Commission since 2010, which is reimbursed a percentage for non-capital cases. Not all counties in Indiana take part in this program and is not required by law.
However, those who take part in the program, must follow the requirements laid out by the commission including the case load that each public defender is allowed to have.
CHNS cases have affected the number of contract lawyers that Lawrence County Council is required to reimburse the attorney's which can average $106 an hour.
The Lawrence County Public defender's office is overseen by a three-member board which include, Bill Spreen, Brent Steele and Jerry Hill.
At this time there has been no word on how the public defender board will address the professional misconduct of Chief Public Defender Bruce Andis and how this will affect the caseloads of the Lawrence County Public Defender's office.
The community is becoming concerned that dangerous criminals may get released due to the issues surrounding the Lawrence County criminal justice system.
Judges concerns over those accused of crimes their constitutional rights may be violated due to the impasse.
Total amount of reimbursement to Lawrence County for public defenders:
2010-2011 - $ 115,906
2011-20212 - $163,578
2012-20213 - $201,280.73
2013-2014 - $220,852.08
2014 - 2015 - $235,665.49
2015-2016 - $265,842
2016-2017 - $293,860
2017-2018 - $322,887
2018-2019 - $338,168
2019-2020 - $313,585
2021-2022 - $304,823.85
Total reimbursement since 2010: $2,962.257.97
Included in the Lawrence County Justice Study are concerns that public defenders are not meeting with their clients in a timely manner and court cases are not being moved more quickly and efficiently through the courts.
A public defender, who was living four hours away was not meeting with his clients. That public defender has since resigned. However there has been a back log of cases and Lawrence County Prosecutor's office and all the judges have been working together to see the cases are being processed timelier.
The end result of the insufficiency of the public defender's office has left jail overcrowding and created the need for a fourth court to be added.
Other Justice Reform Issues Include:
Retired Judge William Sleva request for a fourth court with a grant by Lawrence County Circuit Court Judge Nathan Nikirk was rejected by Lawrence County Commissioners last year. The Lawrence County Commissioners did not leave a statement of why the bids and proposal for a fourth court was rejected.
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The Justice Study cites a need for a new correctional facility which is estimated to cost the taxpayers approximately $46 Million.
Lawrence County Zephyr will continue to monitor the latest developments in Lawrence County Justice reform proposals as well as the Lawrence County Public Defender's Office issues.
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