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The Journal Gazette

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Thursday, February 15, 2018 1:00 am

Editorial

Crisis mentality

Indigent defense issues get needed attention

Listening Tour

Interested citizens, current or former public defenders or clients, county officials, and members of law enforcement and the judiciary are encouraged to attend to offer comments on how public defense services are handled. The session is from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. today at the Allen County Public Library.

“There can be no equal justice where the kind of trial a man gets depends on the amount of money he has.” – U.S. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black

 “Crisis” is used to describe circumstances in so many Indiana institutions these days that the word is beginning to lose its clout. But the state's broken public defender program fits the description. “Inherently flawed,” concluded one report. Another questioned how juveniles in the delinquency system are represented, or not represented.

Allen County is one of two counties facing a lawsuit over its indigent defense system. More than 6,250 misdemeanor cases between Jan. 1, 2013, and Aug. 1, 2015, were divided among four part-time defense attorneys representing indigent defendants, the suit alleges.

“All attorneys each appeared (on) at least 1,000 cases,” according to the suit, which also alleges the county's taxing bodies have allocated no additional funds to assist with misdemeanor defenses and that the Allen County Public Defender Board did not properly supervise the public defenders office.

The statewide assessment by the Boston-based Sixth Amendment Center caught the attention of Indiana judicial officials, however. The report, which concludes the state is not meeting its constitutional responsibility to provide counsel to indigent defendants, prompted the Indiana Public Defender Commission to establish a 17-member task force to develop recommendations regarding the provision of indigent defense.

The task force will hold the second of five listening sessions in Fort Wayne this evening at the downtown library.

Its work, like the task facing many state officials, has been made more urgent by the opioid epidemic. The chief counsel for Marion County's Public Defender Agency said public defenders are severely overworked as a result of caseload increases involving Child in Need of Services cases. As the state has increased funding for child protection caseworkers, the number of cases filed against parents – many of whom are represented by public defenders – has doubled, with some attorneys overseeing as many as 80 active cases at a time.

Overworked attorneys strain the system. However qualified they might be, they can't provide an adequate defense if they are overwhelmed by cases. 

The Sixth Amendment Center report rightly pointed to a flawed state system of providing defense. With input from the legal community and anyone involved in the indigent defense system, this is one crisis the state can and must address.