Saturday, July 12, 2008

Defending the Poor

A major story in tomorrow's Enquirer will feature an independent study just completed of Hamilton County's Public Defender's Office. The results? Not pretty, to say the least.

Among a number of problems and issues at numerous levels, the overarching theme is that the State of Ohio has one of the worst systems of providing criminal defense of the indigent in the country, and is still heading in the wrong direction. Even though the state has a constitutional obligation to provide counsel to the poor, the funding provided by the State is paltry (most states provide full or almost full funding), and counties simply don't have the funds through local taxes to make up the difference, and never will. According to the report, the consequences of this funding failure are severe.

We will hold a hearing on this issue and the response of our Public Defender Commission at an upcoming staff meeting (July 28).

Two points to keep in mind on this subject:

1. Pre-trial delays. One issue that came up in the Issue 27 debate was the number of people who take up jailspace awaiting trial, something we all should be concerned about as we deal with overcrowding and overall jailing costs. There is a clear connection between an under-funded public defender system and the costly delays of getting to trial.

2. Lowering recividism. Ideally, a good public defender should be paying attention to the deeper needs of his or her clients. As opposed to simply putting up a legal defense for the short term, an engaged public defender may often be the best person to help a client make the responsible long-term decisions to deal with substance abuse, mental illness, or other causes of criminal behavior. Again, to the extent the system is overburdened and underfunded, public defenders will struggle to play this critical role -- and we lose a great opportunity to reduce the recividism rates of non-violent offenders.

More to come on this issue.


Anonymous said...

Commissioner Pepper,
There is a simplistic answer to the problem that has nothing to do with more funding and costs nothing -- but legislation.

The answer is the weak state of Ohio's enforcement of the Code of Professional Conduct. Lawyers, all lawyers, are required to perform pro bono work. Too many attorneys believe that "pro bono" equates to uncollected accounts - It does not.

The reason it doesn't is because the financial arrangement with clients who are intending or expected to pay are generally limited in scope (ala carte / unbundled services). When a client can't pay the relationship drastically changes for both the client and the attorney. These unpaid clients where a fee agreement has been established, are business losses - NOT VOLUNTEER SERVICES.

The Governor, OSC, and the Bar have failed the citizens by refusing to set minimum time standards, defining pro bono, and enforcing it.

This has been a drain on taxpayers - and a drain on the level of justice delivered to Ohio citizens.

It IS an abomination and disgrace.

You are an attorney - how many pro bono hours have you donated this year? last? the last five?

If you don't have the time to donate the services - then donate the sum for those hours to pay the public defenders and the legal aid society to hire attorneys willing to do their Fair Share.

Anonymous said...

Commissioner Pepper,

Does the city of Cincinnati pay for their draconian marijuana ordinance or are county taxpayers still footing the bill for that?

David Pepper said...

The City is billed for any jail stay that is due to a City ordinance, such as the marijuana law (as opposed to a state statute).

(This is true for all municipalities in the County).

Anonymous said...

Poor people need to stop committing so many crimes.

The Dean of Cincinnati said...

Commissioner Pepper:

Do you know how many people the City is paying to incarcerate for things like the anti-marijuana ordinance? If not, where would such details be available?

David Pepper said...

So far, the bill ranges from about $10,000 to $15,000 per month. But I don't have a breakdown of what city ordinances account for the bill.

Scott Knox said...

I'm glad you're taking a hard look at the public defender system - you have the insight into the court dynamics to do it. I am not a public defender, but have many friends who have acted as such over the years. To a person the ones I know are highly competent, ethical people who don't treat anyone any different due to the low pay they get. The most common complaint I continually hear is the unrealistically low reimbursement rate and the long wait for reimbursement. That ends up driving good lawyers away who have to make enough money and have a regular enough cash flow to keep the electric on. I hope you'll call a few PD's to get their take on it - they're the experts.

City said...

I have always wondered why staff public defenders are not assigned to rooms on a rotating basis to keep them in a smaller area of the courthouse, instead of running around 4 corners of two floors.

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