The public defender's office in Franklin County has its hands full, dealing with five homicides and an increase in felony cases.
And that means more money than anticipated is going out of the county's budget. But just where that money is going to come from is the $200,000 question. That's how much the bicounty Office of Public Defense expects to be over budget by year's end.
With the number of cases the public defender's office has been assigned increasing by 19 percent, finances to pay for attorneys, expert witnesses and investigators are strained. Just a couple of months ago, Superior Court filings were up 37 percent over August 2010. And the cases are often more complex, with gang-related crimes requiring extra manpower to find reluctant witnesses.
We've all seen the headlines featuring Franklin County homicides. It cost $80,000 to defend a man ultimately convicted of murder in June and five other homicide cases requiring the services of public defenders are pending. Defense attorneys are paid hourly rates when the defendant faces life without the possibility of parole.
All government departments are being asked to do more with less in these challenging economic times. But it would have been difficult to predict the jump in crime and its associated costs and consequences for the public defender's office.
For the long term, the office is looking at whether contracting with an attorney for homicide cases or hiring staff would be more cost efficient. A program that would work toward early resolutions for minor offenses could also help reduce workloads for the public defenders is also being considered.
Anything the office can do to reduce costs would be a benefit to the bottom line. But the defense of those who need it can't be jeopardized in the process. It's certainly a challenge, and one that Franklin County is going to have to grapple with as it figures out how to pay the bill.