by Caitlin Huston
With the public defender contracts set to expire by the end of the year, attorney Mark Leeman is proposing the creation of a public defender board that he says will be more cost-effective and provide more attorneys to the courts.
Speaking in front of County Commissioners Dave Arnold and Jim Sailors, as well as the three sitting Cass County judges, Leeman outlined a plan where six full-time and two part-time attorneys would manage the public defender caseload and the county would be reimbursed 40 percent of the money for the cases, if the attorneys met state requirements.
The option is one of two proposals to be considered by the commissioners. Attorney Sheryl Pherson, a current public defender, said at the meeting that she had submitted the other proposal, but she and the commissioners declined to elaborate on its contents.
Under state regulations, the different levels of felonies and misdemeanors would be divided among the defenders and each defender would be assigned a specific amount of cases each year. Leeman studied the Cass County court cases from 2011 to decide on the number assigned to each attorney.
For capital cases, felonies and the majority of juvenile cases, the state public defense fund would offer a 40 percent reimbursement.
“Right now, Cass County is leaving money on the table,” Leeman said.
The court currently has individual contracts for four public defenders with one attorney, Robert Murray, doing the work of two defenders. In an interview last week, Cass Superior II Judge Rick Maughmer said the “overwhelming” caseload had been a problem for four public defenders, especially in large cases where multiple suspects are arrested at the same time. To avoid conflicts of interest in the large cases, Maughmer said, each defendant has to have a different attorney, which can amount to more than the four public defenders and thus cause the courts to contract out to other attorneys.
“We need more so we can deal with the conflicts,” Maughmer said.
At a previous commissioners meeting, Maughmer reported that the court had gone over its $335,000 budget for public defenders in 2011, spending more than $410,000. The extra $75,000 came from a supplemental public defender fund, he said.
Because of the conflicts and the drain on the funds, judges and commissioners called for a cost-effective plan that would provide the courts with at least six attorneys.
Leeman said that his plan proposes an overall budget of $518,000, but with the estimated 40 percent reimbursement, the county would end up spending less than the $435,000 now budgeted for 2013.
“Basically with the budget you have now, you can get more attorneys structured in a way that I think is more convenient for the judges and spend less money than you’re doing right now,” Leeman told the commissioners.
The attorneys would be appointed by a three-person board, which would be responsible for making sure the attorneys stayed within state regulations, Leeman said. Two of the board members would be selected by the judges and one would be selected by the commissioners.
Dave Arnold, president of the board of commissioners, said his biggest concern would be regulating the caseload.
“Sometimes, boards get away from things at hand,” Arnold said.
Maughmer countered that the fail safe would be the fact that the commissioners could disband the public defender board in 90 days and change to another system.
Neal added that because of the board’s evaluation system, Cass County would be almost guaranteed to receive the 40 percent reimbursement the first year.
“It takes a lot to get kicked out of the program,” Neal added.
Though Maughmer said he was against such a board during his 18 years as prosecutor, he has now changed his view.
“My perspective has changed dramatically,” he said.
Arnold said the commissioners would have to make a decision between the two proposals in the next two weeks.
“The three of us have got to make a decision,” Arnold said.
• Caitlin Huston is a staff reporter of the Pharos-Tribune. She can be reached at 574-732-5148 or firstname.lastname@example.org.