By Cindi Andrews
The Cincinnati Enquirer
Hamilton County is considering paying more to make sure poor people accused of crimes get a good legal defense.
"Criminal defendants in this county are not being adequately represented. And it's not a criticism of the Public Defender's Office," County Commissioner Phil Heimlich said Tuesday. "You can't pay people $40 an hour to represent someone on a serious felony charge. You're not going to get good talent."
Heimlich is proposing paying up to $60,000 for an outside review of the Public Defender's Office to ensure it's operating efficiently and recommend whether the best course would be to hire more staff attorneys or pay private attorneys more to take public defender cases.
"I don't want someone who's innocent sent to prison on my watch," he said.
Commissioner Todd Portune said he also supports beefing up the Public Defender Office. Commissioner John Dowlin was out of town.
The office, which has a $9.6 million budget this year, has 98 staff members, Public Defender Louis Strigari said - more than half of them attorneys. They represent low-income defendants in juvenile cases and adult misdemeanor cases. Almost 200 private attorneys have signed up to take the more serious felony cases on a rotating basis.
Public defenders' pay is not a new issue. Common Pleas Judge Fred Nelson could rule next month on a lawsuit three local attorneys filed in 2000 seeking higher pay. The suit was filed despite the county raising private attorneys' pay from $30 to $40 an hour that same year.
Robert Newman, a civil-rights lawyer arguing the three attorneys' case, is seeking an increase to $60 an hour.
Ohio is supposed to pay 50 percent of county defender's offices' costs but is paying just 33 percent this year, Strigari said. Hamilton County taxpayers pick up the rest of the tab.
Newman would also like to see the Public Defender's Office expanded to handle all felony cases, perhaps farming out the misdemeanors.
That's how most of the state's other urban counties do it, he said.
"We have a very strong prosecutor's office in Hamilton County, and they do a professional job," Newman said. "We need a mirror on the defense side."
Heimlich and Portune are open to that approach but don't want to make any decisions until an outside company reviews the Public Defender's Office. The independent county Public Defender Commission has agreed to a review.
It will probably be completed by consultant A.T. Hudson & Co. Inc., which is already looking at other county departments for opportunities to cut costs and improve customer service.
County Administrator David Krings was surprised to hear of the commissioners' concerns.
"I have never heard from the Public Defender's Office that we have not been getting quality work for the money we've been paying," Krings said.
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