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Public defender system proposed

Jun. 03, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

IRONTON -- State Sen. Joe Uecker, R-Miami Township, introduced a bill last week that seeks to change the way people accused of crimes in Ohio are represented by legal counsel if they can't afford to hire their own attorneys.

While both Kentucky and West Virginia have public defender systems, Ohio counties appoint local attorneys to represent defendants in criminal cases. Several local lawyers and Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Charles "Chuck" Cooper want to retain the current system.

Uecker said the current system has created discrepancies in the quality, efficiency and cost of representation. He represents several Ohio counties in the state Senate, including the western part of Lawrence County.

Senate Bill 139 seeks to ease the financial burden placed on counties while creating a more concise and cost-efficient system, Uecker said in a prepared release. The bill, if approved and signed into law, transfers financial responsibility for indigent defense from the counties to the state over the next six years. It would first increase the state's share of the costs to 50 percent and then pick up an additional 10 percent per year until all the costs are paid by the state. Currently, the state and counties share the cost of indigent defense.

"I'm against this," Cooper said. "Currently, we have nine lawyers who are willing to take appointment in criminal defense cases. It's not unusual to have multiple defendants in a meth case, for example. You need a separate lawyer for each defendant."

One of his major concerns is the loss of local control, Cooper said.

"I've never been in favor of counties giving up local control to the state," he said. "This system has been in place for years, and it works."

Warren "Butch" Morford, a South Point, Ohio, lawyer who has handled criminal defense cases for more than 33 years, is not a fan of the public defender system.

"The current system has served Lawrence County well," he said. "I don't think (a pubic defender system) will work well here. It could lead to less strenuous defense in criminal cases."

Cabell County Prosecutor Chris Chiles said the public defender system has worked well in West Virginia for years.

"I think it works very effectively," he said.

Even with such a system, however, there still will be a great need for local lawyers to do criminal defense work due to conflicts of interest caused by multiple defendants in a single case, Chiles said.

Boyd County Circuit Judge George B. Davis III said the public defender system is working in Kentucky. Boyd County was one of the last Kentucky counties to switch from local lawyers handling criminal cases to a public defender system, Davis said.

"You have dedicated people who do a good job with the caseload they have," Davis said. "But like every other state agency, there is a bureaucracy to deal with."

Mark McCown, an Ironton lawyer who has done criminal defense work in the past, thinks a public defender system in Lawrence County "would be a bad idea."

"They could regionalize it, and there may not be enough state money to have an office in Lawrence County. The way it's structured now, judges can put experienced lawyers on criminal cases."

McCown, past president of the county bar association, said a public defender system will employ lawyers straight out of law school.

"We're talking about the liberty of individuals," he said. "Do you want trained lawyers or those doing on-the-job training? Every defendant deserves the best defense a lawyer can give them."

The bill would allow the state public defender the authority to approve county indigent defense systems and set a pay schedule for pubic defenders.

"Ohio's current indigent defense system lacks uniformity, which costs the taxpayers additional financial burden," Uecker said in a prepared release. "My mission has always been to support a responsible, accountable and efficient government, and this bill is another contribution to that goal. Creating unified administration of the indigent defense system will allow us to be better stewards of Ohioans' hard-earned tax dollars."

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