Five homicides and a jump in felony cases in Franklin County are kidnapping the county's budget.
The cost of defending the accused will likely push the bicounty Office of Public Defense $200,000 over budget this year.
The office's coordinator, Eric Hsu, doesn't see relief anytime soon.
County Commissioner Brad Peck said he isn't sure where the money will come from.
Superior Court case filings rose 37 percent in August compared with the same time last year, Hsu told commissioners this week. The number of cases in which a public defender was appointed increased 19 percent.
"Caseloads have been increasing at an alarming rate in Superior Court," he said.
The number of serious crimes, including first- and second-degree assaults and drive-by shootings, have increased at a higher rate than other felonies. For example, 12 serious crimes were charged in August, compared with four in August last year, Hsu said.
Public defense attorneys say they are working on more gang-related cases, which can be expensive, he said. And they need to hire private investigators to help because witnesses can be difficult to find and interview.
Hsu said they budgeted $100,000 for those expenses this year but they likely will spend about $200,000 more for professional services before the end of 2011.
Some of that will pay for investigators and expert witnesses, but most will be for attorneys being paid hourly fees, Hsu said. Defense attorneys are paid hourly rates in cases where a defendant faces a life sentence without parole.
The cost to defend murderer Ramon Garcia-Morales totaled about $80,000. Garcia-Morales was sentenced in June to 67 years in prison for killing Alfredo Garcia and wounding his wife, Maria Ramirez de Garcia.
The five other pending homicide cases requiring public defense attorneys include:
w Garcia-Morales' brother, Jose, who is charged with first-degree murder and attempted first-degree murder in the same December 2008 shooting.
w Gregorio Luna Luna, who is charged with murdering his ex-girlfriend Griselda Ocampo Meza in May 2010.
w Kurtis Robert Chapman, who is charged with second-degree murder and first-degree manslaughter in the death of his pregnant ex-girlfriend, Shenay Greenough, and her unborn daughter in May 2010.
w Tashia L. Stuart, who is charged with killing her Pasco mother, Judy Hebert, in March.
w Aaron Velasco, who is charged with murdering his sister, Magdalena Velasco-Garcia, on June 9.
In a sixth case, Lori Ann Christensen's family has hired a private attorney to represent her in the vehicular homicide death of Orlando Abarca-Rivera last September.
Hsu said he plans to look at whether hiring a staff public defense attorney or contracting with an attorney just for homicide cases would help the county manage the required costs.
Homicide cases are assigned to the county's contracted public defense attorneys who already have busy caseloads, he said. That means two defense attorneys, are assigned to the case because one is too busy to handle the case alone.
Having a single attorney assigned to a case could save money because about 20 percent of billings appear to be for when attorneys are working at the same time, such as during the trial, Hsu said.
This year, Hsu said he is concerned Superior Court defense attorneys will exceed the case cap on their contracts, triggering a clause that requires they be paid by the hour for 30 to 60 cases beyond the contract limits.
That possible overage would be worse if the county hadn't contracted this year with an attorney to handle child support and legal obligation cases, Hsu said. That's something commissioners approved last year.
Hsu said he also is working on a proposal for an early resolution program in Superior Court for minor offenses, such as some property crimes, which could help reduce caseloads.
In Franklin County District Court, a new program that makes a defense attorney attend arraignments has helped cut the number of cases assigned to public defense attorneys, Hsu said.
While the number of cases filed in District Court has increased by 4.4 percent this year, the number of cases assigned to public defenders has decreased by 9 percent, he said. It's close to paying for itself, he said.
The program also helps defendants by better protecting their rights, Hsu said.