Saturday, September 29, 2001

Defenders get to trial


Private lawyers sued for a raise

By Dan Klepal
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        The amount of pay private attorneys get for representing poor people who are charged with felonies in Hamilton County is going on trial.

        The Ohio First District Court of Appeals ruled Friday that a suit challenging the $40 per hour the county Public Defender's Office pays should proceed.

        A group of private attorneys says $40 is woefully low, and pressures them to settle cases rather than go to trial.

        A lower court had dismissed the case and the lawyers appealed.

        Even Hamilton County Prosecutor Mike Allen has said that the pay scale is too low. When private attorneys are appointed as special prosecutors, they get paid much more — sometimes as much as $200 per hour.

        With more than 8,000 felony cases in the county each year, a significant bump in pay for public defenders could cost millions.

        Bob Newman, one of the attorneys who filed the suit, said the pay scale should be somewhere between $125 and $140 per hour to cover office overhead and the attorney's time.

        “The decision is a ray of light for criminal defense attorneys and for people charged with crimes,” Mr. Newman said.

        “Spending money on criminal defense is the least popular topic of public expenditure. But it's the price tag of the Constitution and what differentiates us from the rest of the world.”

        Hamilton County Administrator Dave Krings said having the Public Defender's Office handle all felony cases would require dozens of office workers and an unknown number of attorneys.

        Mr. Allen said public defenders should be paid the same as prosecutors.

        “I think that's appropriate,” Mr. Allen said. “Public defenders have one of the toughest jobs in the system.”

        Hamilton County raised the pay from $35 to $40 per hour last year. Still, it is one of the lowest pay scales in the state.

        Attorney Edward J. Felson, also part of the lawsuit, said higher pay equates to justice.

        “Another step has been taken to get people a fair trial,” Mr. Felson said. “People just don't feel like they got a fair shake. It's not that public defenders don't try their hardest. It's a tough job.

        “But, boy, is there financial incentive not to go to trial. And we can't have that because people lose faith in the system.”

       



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