Thursday, July 31, 2003

Public defenders a high priority

They need better pay

A Hamilton County commissioner thinks the county should be doing more to make sure poor people get a fair shake when they're accused of crimes. He's right.

Commissioner Phil Heimlich proposed in a Tuesday meeting to spend about $60,000 for an outside efficiency study on the public defender's office. The study will examine the best ways to augment the office's capabilities, probably by either hiring more staff attorneys or raising compensation for private defense lawyers who sometimes work for the county.

It will be well worth the money. Right now, Hamilton County's commitment to fair trials is a shame. A point of contention is how much the county pays the roughly 200 private lawyers who contract with the county to defend the indigent, usually on serious felonies and capital crimes.

Even after a pay raise to $40 per hour in 2000, the county still lags behind most of the state in paying these people. In fact, Hamilton is 74th out of 88 counties in hourly reimbursement rates. Stark County, home of Canton, is the only urban county that pays its lawyers less.

Poorly paid attorneys aren't necessarily bad attorneys, but the concern isn't hard to understand. Most private lawyers charge hundreds of dollars an hour. The county can't hope to compete for the best legal minds when it only pays $40 an hour.

One critic advocates raising the rates to $60 an hour, which would be the highest in the state. Such a dramatic increase is probably not feasible in a tough economy, but some sort of increase is needed. The other option of adding full-time staff to the public defender is just as unlikely.

Taxpayers may not like the idea of paying more to defend people charged with serious crimes, but the imbalance created by the current system is unfair, and needs to be addressed.

Hamilton County takes the law seriously, and rightly so. The Prosecutor's office works with more than 200 employees to aggressively pursue convictions.

But justice results from vigorous prosecution matched against vigorous and able defense. It is the county's obligation to see that the sides are fairly matched.

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