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The crushing cost of indigent defense

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St. Lawrence County is asking that the state take over the burgeoning cost of indigent defense — the program which provides attorneys for those who cannot afford their own legal representation.

It’s an effort that is gaining support among other counties across the state who also find themselves shouldering an ever-increasing cost to provide legal representation for the poor in criminal cases, appeals and Family Court cases.

The cost has been shouldered by counties since the state mandated in 1965 that counties provide legal defense for the poor. As with most state mandates, the state has forced counties to provide a service without giving localities a nickel toward its cost.

In 2012, St. Lawrence County spent $1.9 million on indigent defense. Last year, the cost climbed to $2.1 million. Of that cost, $955,000 was for assigned counsel.

We suspect that some people who really should not qualify for indigent defense end up with a publicly funded attorney, simply because there are so many cases that it would be impossible for a few to not slip through the cracks. That being said, St. Lawrence County is among the poorest in the state, and we are confident that the vast majority of those the indigent defense program serves do indeed qualify for public defender representation. There is not much the county can do under the system’s current structure to bring down its costs. The county is required by law to provide legal representation for those who otherwise cannot afford it. As long as people fall under the income guidelines, they cannot be denied representation.

However, county lawmakers do have control over the number of attorneys they hire, which could bring down the cost of assigned counsel. The county turns to outside attorneys when attorneys in its Public Defender and Conflict Public Defender offices cannot take a case because they are either representing a defendant in another case, a particular person associated with a defendant in another proceeding or there is some other ethical reason they cannot provide representation.

Roughly half of the county’s overall cost for indigent defense last year was assigned counsel. Having a few more attorneys on staff who can take cases when conflicts keep other attorneys from taking them might help reduce that cost. It is worth studying the return on investment hiring more people might pose.

Otherwise, the county will have to wait until the state acts to take over the cost of indigent defense. County officials have already been waiting more than a decade for mandate reform that has not come. They must as a result focus on the portions of program costs they can control before the funding demands spiral out of control.

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